Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tell-it-All Tuesdays

Hi there, my name is Michelle. I'm a second-year undergrad at McGill university, majoring in Women's Studies and Anthropology: which is all a fancy elitist way to introduce that I am interested in analyzing human culture, and the ways that gender plays out in our day to day life.

My "Tell-it-all Tuesday" blog will focus on feminist analysis of popular Western media. This is a big, big topic, one which I modestly approach with my tools of critical thinking and humour. It is fitting, then, that my first blog entry is a feminist analysis of the 2009 summer comedy, The Hangover.

The Hangover is a movie from the emerging category of “bromance comedy”: two or more heterosexual males formed in a non-sexual relationship face a heterosexual challenge (get laid by a girl, go to Vegas etc.) While this heterosexual challenge initially causing a rift between the boys (they love the same girl, they trash a hotel room), it inevitably renders the bromance stronger. The films are formulaic, and generally perpetuate the tired truism that “boys will be boys.” While the leading male protagonists are dim-witted and less than ambitious, they are likable for all their faults. Their antics are celebrated, and glorified (sure it’s stupid to steal a tiger from Mike Tyson, but damn it looks like fun!). The overarching narrative of The Hangover is one of reclaimed freedom. Freed from the restraints of family life (wife, children, job), the boys are finally able to participate in the token activities of Western male culture (strippers, booze, gambling, pranks).

Meanwhile, female characters within the movie are caricatures of people, their behaviour and activity restricted to the female stereotypes they symbolize: The Bride (Tracy), The Whore (Jade), and The Frigid Bitch (Melissa). Within The Hangover, we witness what Marilyn Frye terms the double bind: “situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation.” While the male characters face limited behaviour choices (they must behave within their gender role), they receive approval and respect for performing the male identity. The prank of stealing a cop car, for example, earns the boys a high five from Mike Tyson. Female character, however, are chastised in nearly every choice, particularly concerning sexual (in)activity. Stu’s girlfriend, Melissa, severely controls and limits the emotional/sexual interactions between Stu and her; this earns her the title of “complete bitch.” On the other pole of female sexual activity is Jade, the stripper, who, while “super hot” and sexually accessible to Stu, is nonetheless marked with the negative title of “whore.”

It appears that the boys can have their cake and eat it, too: they engage in deviant practices, but are protected from critical judgment by the “boys will be boys” clause. As Stu tells Melissa, The Frigid Bitch: “I think in a healthy relationship, sometimes a guy should be able to do what a guy wants to do!” Women do not have this same liberty. When they engage in sexually deviant behaviour (stripping, for example) they are called whores. While “men will be men” validates and celebrates male culture and behaviour, the “women will be women” mantra condemns female culture and behaviour.

The only somewhat-acceptable female role within this movie, and indeed many other comedies, is that of The Bride (Tracy) whose passively waits, protected and pretty, for her groom to arrive. It’s the sperm and egg narrative: the men actively race to deliver the groom to the bride, while the bride sits in her dressing room to receive the groom. Forgive me if I find this docile (and boring) ideal of femininity less than desirable.

So, what’s the problem with a Hollywood movie espousing sexist narratives? Am I being too unrealistic to expect something progressive from the comedy-genre? Is is too much to demand more complex, positive roles for women? It appears that many people are of this opinion, as countless friends/colleagues/family members keep telling me “it’s just a movie.” The problem is that a movie is always more than just a movie. It is a product of the culture. The bromance genre has exploded because people feel as if they can identify with the narrative. We really do believe that men will be men, women will be women, and never shall the twain understand each other. We really do reward men for fulfilling the male role, while penalizing women for performing the female role (you must be sexy, but if you’re sexy you’re also assumed to be “easy,” or a slut). The bromance reflects current trends within the Western culture, and perpetuates these harmful, reductive views of women. If we only see stereotypes and caricatures of women represented within the media, we project these stereotypes onto real women. We see women as sluts and bitches because that is how we are trained to identify and classify them.

Which brings me to my last point: the most essential step in altering the reductive, negative roles for women in movies is to make women themselves the main characters, the narrators, the commentators. Men in comedies often bemoan that they don’t understand women. Perhaps male culture would understand women better if they truly let us have a voice, and if society actually respected what women have to say. How about a main female character who possesses and enacts her own sexuality, and is not just sexualized? Or a female character who cracks the jokes, instead of being the butt of them? I will acknowledge that there has been some progress in this area, with comics such as Tina Fey leading the way. Increasingly, women are employing comedy as a tool to push for gender equality (see “Smart Girls at the Party,” and the comic work of Margaret Cho). But there is still a large inequality in representation, and an overriding cultural disregard for female comedians that must change. Women and men alike, let’s call for a new wave of comedy that doesn’t hinge on disdain for women. Let’s not see women as subjects of comedy’s sting, but as comedic creators themselves.

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