Wednesday, December 7, 2011

He's complex. She's a bitch. The implicit double-standard of 'unsympathetic' female characters.

I've long discussed, usually in the context of another topic, about how female film characters are judged on a far harsher sliding morality scale than their male counterparts.  The upcoming release of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's Young Adult, which basically plays like a classic anti-hero Oscar-bait dramedy except for the fact that the anti-hero is female, will be an interesting test case.  Had the film starred a popular male star, its quality would likely place it among the current Oscar front-runners.  But two days before release, it has been more-or-less absent from the Oscar talk. Male characters get to be selfish oafs, immature man-children, and all manner of criminals, but as long as they learn a lesson in the end and/or are doing their misdeeds for a noble cause (usually a pretty girl, a kid, or an animal), they are let off the moral hook.  But female characters are rarely allowed to be villains, and almost never allowed to be complex antagonists.  Moreover, in mainstream films, all a female character has to do to earn the wrath of critics (and audiences?) and/or be declared a villain is basically have a three-dimensional personality. And more often than not, the actresses themselves are often judged not entirely on the quality of their performance, but also on the relative morality of the character they are portraying.   

Ben Affleck robs banks, kills people, stalks and romances a woman who he used as a hostage in a prior heist, but The Town's leading man is okay because he's a decent guy at heart.  Leslie Mann's long-suffering wife/mothers in both Knocked Up and The Change-Up was attacked as 'shrewish' merely for expressing her honest (and accurate) misgivings about her relationship problems.  Alexander Payne's films contain any number of male characters (Thomas Hayden Church in Sideways, Matthew Broderick in Election, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt) who commit all manner of terrible offenses against others (usually women), but only Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick (in Election, Payne's best film, natch) has come under the microscope of how she represented ALL women who were ambitious and wanted to do big things in life.  Back in 1997, Ally McBeal (played by Calista Flockhart) was accused of causing 'the Death of Feminism' purely for wanting a man AND a career while discussing her emotional issues with candor among her friends and colleagues.  Yet male protagonists get to engage in all manner of nefarious behavior in their prestige-picture dramas without being accused of bringing down their gender.

The most recent inexplicable example of this trend was arguably the critical reception that greeted the Ginnifer Goodwin/Kate Hudson romantic drama Something Borrowed.  While it's not a good film per-se (it's about 20 minutes too long and tells most of its story in the first act), the critical response centered around the unfathomable morality of its lead characters.  Their crimes?  Well, Goodwin's character engages in an adulterous affair with Hudson's fiancee, a man whom she has been in love with for years.  And Hudson was attacked for... well, for not being very nice.  The vitriol that was unleashed at these female characters who, remember this is a drama not a comedy as so many critics failed to realize, engaged in flawed behavior and dealt with the very real consequences of said behavior, suggested that the film was morally advocating behavior on the level of The Human Centipede part II.

And let us not forget the inexplicable cries of 'villain!', 'bitch!', and 'she-devil!' that greeted the release of (500) Days of Summer.  What was the crime that Zooey Deschanel's Summer Finn committed to earn such wrath?  Well, she dumped Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the finale of the picture, after explicitly telling him that she wasn't interested in a serious relationship right in the very first act.  The film was a somewhat deconstructionist version of the standard 'young man comes of age with help of out-of-his-league hottie' story, but all-too many critics and pundits declared Summer the anti-Christ merely for not falling head-over-heals in love with the male lead.  What's interesting about this ongoing trend is not just the obvious double-standard at play, but the actual nature of many of these criticisms.  Ryan Gosling's 'Driver' gets away with being a professional criminal and is romanticized for it purely because he's 'cool', but Natalie Portman's Nina Seyers, like Bella Swan of the Twilight Saga before her, is condemned in many circles purely for doing harm to herself even as male characters get to keep their 'coolness' or even their moral superiority while doing harm to others.  If you recall, there were any number of editorials questioning whether or not her Oscar-winning Black Swan character was sending a bad message to young girls about losing weight and becoming obsessed with perfectionism in pursuit of her art.  I don't think I read a single editorial asking if Christian Bale's Oscar-winning work in The Fighter was sending young boys dangerous messages about becoming a crack addict.

What is at play is the sliding scale of morality when it comes to criticizing female characters, as well as the films in which they are featured.  That Tea Leoni played a rather wretched and unpleasant wife/mother in James L. Brooks's Spanglish is an objective statement.  But any number of reviews that came out in late 2004 seemed to take Leoni herself to task for successfully playing such an unpleasant human being.  It seemed at the time that critics and pundits seemingly unable to realize that successfully playing a less-than-upstanding woman was entirely different than giving a 'bad' performance.  And it goes both ways too...  Without getting into whether Julia Roberts deserved an Oscar for Erin Brockovich back in 2000, do remember how many of the reviews praised her performance by listing positive attributes of her character ('strong', 'brash', 'headstrong', etc). They were equating the character's positive qualities as 'good acting'.  Perhaps we still feel the need to point out, to the point of being patronizing, whenever a major female character exhibits a genuine personality.  But this generally only applies when said personality is used for the good of others, usually other men to boot (see - Salander, Lisbeth as portrayed by Noomi Rapace and/or Rooney Mara).

All of this makes the Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody picture an interesting one to watch in the last few weeks of the year.  While Charlize Theron surely deserves an Oscar nomination, it stands to reason from history that the downright villainous nature of her character puts her and the film at a disadvantage.  Even more ironic is that the current front-runner (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady) is winning plaudits for playing what is allegedly a highly softened version of a very divisive political figure.  And just what should we make of the current Oscar buzz not for Kristen Wiig's complex and flawed Bridesmaids heroine, but for the comparatively simplistic, clownish, and morally upstanding character played by Melissa McCarthy?  For all too often, male characters and female characters are judged on a vastly different moral scale, and judged far differently for how they fall on that scale.  Even in 2011, being an asshole is no obstacle, it may even be an asset, to how a male character is judged.  But being labeled a 'bitch', even if the character merely exhibits a trace amount of humanity, can be the curtain call for any given female character, as well as the film she appears in.

Scott Mendelson


Maxwell H said...

Many of your examples - notably The Change Up, Spanglish, and Something Borrowed - are terrible films and have poorly written character. These characters are called bitches because that is how they are written. There is no complexity, and the performances of Leslie Mann, Tea Leanoi, and the Something Borrowed women are not strong performances. I suspect Charlize's character in Young Adult will be well received because Charlize is a terrific actress and Diablo Cody has proven she can write multi dimensional characters.

I think the bigger issue here is why are there not more roles for women written that are complex, multi dimensional roles? The fact that you have to stoop to selecting mediocre/awful comedies as your examples proves me point.

As for 500 Days of Summer, that is actually a very strong example, and from my experience I have heard a wealth of debate over who (man vs. woman) in that film was in the right. Both were complex characters, and I think people responded as such.

Nathan Donarum said...

Yeah, it was interesting back when Charlize Theron won for 'Monster' how many people condemned her and attacked her as a bad example to women. ...Oh wait.

Scott Mendelson said...

I would argue that The Town and Drive are mediocre films lacking in complexity, and I would argue at least some of the praise came from their existence in the 'hard-boiled manly men doing manly tasks' meme. I would disagree with you about Mann's work in Knocked Up and The Change-Up, as well as Leoni's work in the admittedly flawed Spanglish (oh lord how I hate the last five minutes!). As for Something Borrowed, my point was that a relatively mediocre drama was treated as if it were a piece of hellspawn primarily because the female leads engaged in the kind of flawed behavior that is status quo for male dramatic characters.

Scott Mendelson said...

Exception that proves the rule, perhaps, and one of the few occasions in the last thirty years where a villain or 'unsympathetic' character won the Best Actress prize. The other two arguable exceptions would be Kate Winslet in The Reader and Kathy Bates in Misery (although I would argue that the latter is a 'love to hate her villain).

Nathan Donarum said...

Firstly, I don't understand how Oscar has anything to do with this. Your entire article here is overly simplistic to an undeniably unfortunate degree. Even your definition of "female anti-hero" here lacks a great deal of nuance. Do you mean women who make morally-ambiguous choices? Women who aren't meant to be liked? If we're talking characters similar those you've mentioned in this article, then the following Oscar nominees all count:

Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice (and why not throw in Kramer vs. Kramer as well, that wasn't too far before)
Mary Tyler Moore - Ordinary People
Marlee Matlin - Children of a Lesser God
Glenn Close - Fatal Attraction
Glenn Close - Dangerous Liaisons
Anjelica Huston - The Grifters
Kathy Bates - Misery
Susan Sarandon - Thelma & Louise
Geena Davis - Thelma & Louis
Elizabeth Shue - Leaving Las Vegas
Emily Watson - Breaking the Waves
Helena Bonham Carter - The Wings of the Dove
Annette Bening - American Beauty
Ellen Burstyn - Requiem for a Dream
Halle Berry - Monster's Ball
Diane Lane - Unfaithful
Charlize Theron - Monster
Naomi Watts - 21 Grams

I'm just going to stop here. I don't see the point in continuing. These are just Oscar nominees in the Best Actress category. I'm not even getting into the Best Supporting Actress category. All from the last thirty years. There's no "rule" here, at least none that you've proven. You may have a supposition, but you speak as if this is fact. You don't even source the numerous "reviews" you contend have been so misgiving about these female characters you cite. These points don't simply "go without saying," and just because you say them doesn't make them true.

Frankly, I find it frustrating that you mention a few mediocre-to-poorly-received movies as "proof" of some trend Just last year Michelle Williams got an Oscar nomination for playing… Oh shit! A three-dimensional female character with off-putting characteristics that one could easily side against. And I'd dare you to show me proof that critics, let alone audiences, applied this apparent "trend" to that movie with Williams' character versus Gosling's. And again, I'm not even getting into the movies that didn't get Oscar attention. Frankly, your argument just seems specious and I'm completely unconvinced by it.

Nathan Donarum said...

I have yet to find a single person who has praised 'Drive' because of a "hard-boiled manly man doing manly tasks." That's just presumptuous and ridiculous. In all the discussions I've had about Drive, including those of my film classmates, what did we discuss? Ryan Gosling "doing manly things"? Not so much. More so the use of Refn's cinematography, editing, his intermix of sudden violence into the narrative, the use of a so-called "genre film" to explore deeper cinematic territory that's usually relegated to so-called "prestige" films (to use your terminology), etc. You know, actual cinematically-related issues, and issues related to the films we've explored all semester. I fail to understand how you can take such an obtuse approach to 'Drive' while searching all the world for meaning in the insultingly-dull 'Sucker Punch.'

Scott Mendelson said...

I'm pretty sure we're going to have to agree to disagree, but allow me to offer a token response...

I would argue that several of the examples fall into the 'sympathetic' realm (or, as in the case of Elizabeth Shue, into the 'playing a hooker or stripper' meme, sympathetic as she was), and the fact that these characters would be viewed as 'I would only say that many of the more noteworthy examples are from the 80s and very early 1990s. I would argue that female roles for mainstream films have regressed in the last twenty years (arguably partially because more of our mainstream product has moved away from character drama and more towards male-centric fantasy genre).

Thelma and Louise is actually a perfect example of two female characters who were obsessively debated, critiqued, and called 'bad role models', etc for what in actuality was very little 'bad behavior' (I don't remember each act of rebellion, but their one violent crime was one of pure self-defense). Even back in 1991, Thelma and Louise were being 'judged' on a moral plane different from, say, Butch and Sundance.

One of the issues I actually had with American Beauty was that it celebrated the reckless freedom of Kevin Spacey's character while making Annette Benning an obstacle for having the same feelings of despair as Spacey's (I didn't include it because I haven't seen the film since it was in theaters 12 years ago and didn't want to go off my own spotty memory).

As for Bonham Carter, I will simply restate what I wrote last year, that I found it disappointing that after nearly two decades playing offbeat and eccentric characters that she should get her second Oscar nomination for playing a relatively flat, but dutifully loyal and proper 'supportive wife' in The King's Speech (but of course you could say the same relative thing about Geoffrey Rush).

Blue Valentine leads back to the issue, actually. I would argue that the fact that people would find Williams' behavior 'unsympathetic' is further evidence of the point, in that perfectly recognizable human behavior is often viewed as 'wrongheaded' when the character is female.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but that's enough for now.

Greg said...

Nathan Donarum already picked out many examples from years past, but from this year alone examples of flawed female characters who have received potential awards attention include Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, Shailene Woodley in The Descendents, and Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. None are criminals, but they fall to varying degrees into your "selfish oafs" and "immature (wo)man-children" categories.

You've pinpointed Something Borrowed (of all movies?), but choose to ignore either popular or critically positive response to the titular coldblooded assassin in Hanna, the assorted realistically flawed women of Bridesmaids, Michelle Williams' take-charge frontierswoman in Meek's Cutoff, Cameron Diaz setting up her well-meaning fellow teacher to be fired in Bad Teacher, Jennifer Aniston abusive boss in Horrible Bosses, Brit Marling's deeply disturbed, guilty-of-manslaughter protagonist in Another Earth, and many more.

The most critically acclaimed new TV drama of the fall is Homeland, which centers around a female CIA agent who pursues her targets through extralegal means, sets up illegal wiretaps, stalks people, swears out her superior, and Claire Danes' performance as said character is universally acclaimed. Also highly popular is ABC's new drama Revenge, which stars Emily VanCamp as a vengeance-mad angel of justice who, among other things, is privy to coldblooded murder. Again, people greatly enjoy her character.

In the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category, actresses winning for playing morally gray or dark characters or characters in some way antagonistic to the movie's protagonist(s) include Melissa Leo in The Fighter last year, Mo'Nique in Precious two years ago, Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton four years ago, and many others in years before that. Jacki Weaver's (nominated) coldblooded crime family matriarch in Animal Kingdom last year was as acclaimed as any performance all year among people who saw the film. (Margo Martindale won an Emmy this year for playing a similarly monstrous villain in FX's Justified, probably the most universally agreed-upon acting Emmy of the night.)

In fact, the more I look at it, there are more flawed and even villainous winners in both the Actress and Best Actress categories than saintly characters, whether you go back ten years, twenty, or thirty. You've just cherry-picked a couple examples, largely from terrible movies no one cared about (and, in more than one case, your criticisms of the response to the film I've heard nowhere, ever, and this is coming from someone who compulsively follows film blogs and forums, especially your insistence that Natalie Portman in Black Swan was debated as a role model).

Scott Mendelson said...

Two caveats - I find this phenomenon most affects mainstream films, so I tried to stay out of the realm of independent film, the sort that most people outside the film-critic world probably won't see. The problem is less severe in less mainstream films, and I should have made that distinction. And I did not intend to include 'television' in the first paragraph (fixed now), as television does not have this problem, generally speaking (although Ally McBeal remains a potent example that has stuck in my mind for 15 years). Television has been a better place for women for around 20 years, give or take.

As it is, several of the counter-examples you mentioned were ones I was going to discuss but cut for time/space. Ironically, this is the rare example where I am (perhaps justifiably) getting hammered for an essay being too short. To wit -

Some Black Swan bits -

Some Bad Teacher pieces that came out before/during release -

As far as exceptions, of course they exist, and the successes of several R-rated female comedies just this year may in fact bring a tide of change. But even looking at Bridesmaids (another one I left off for time), let's see who is getting the awards heat? Is it Kristen Wiig's flawed, complicated, three-dimensional lead character, or is it Melissa McCarthy's morally upstanding and (with the exception of one almost-serious third-act moment) walking punchline?

And I chose to highlight Something Borrowed because A) it was reading the reviews of others after watching the movie that hit home said double-standard and B) it was a mainstream movie that should not have raised any kind of ruckus whatsoever, yet many of the reviews acted like the film had committed a genuine moral outrage.

Anyway, enough redirect for now. I concede that (with the exception of Ally McBeal) I did not intend to include television, and I would argue that while more exceptions exist in independent cinema, it is partially said portrayals of their female protagonists that make them less mainstream in the first place.

Nathan Donarum said...

There's too many problems here to engage them all. I'll just point out a couple things.

First, you seem to be changing your definition of female "anti-heroes" based on whether they fit into your trend or not. Even if you take away Thelma & Louise, so many more examples remain, and as I said, I was citing JUST Best Actress nominees, not even Supporting roles, or roles not nominated by the Academy Awards. If you expand the field, your "trend" falls apart even more.

Second, my point about Blue Valentine was not that people would find her unsympathetic, but that they COULD, and in fact did not judge her as they would have under your supposed trend. Gosling's character was no better/worse judged than Williams'. I think you just missed my point.

I don't get how you can say "we're going to have to agree to disagree." It's not like this is interpreting an ambiguous element from a film. It's a supposed cultural trend you speak to as if it's fact. I see no factual evidence anywhere in this post.

Maxwell H said...

You cant " agree to disagree" when facts are being discussed. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact.

I would argue that both characters in Blue Valentine who act in a "perfectly recognizable" fashion were viewed as unsympathetic to certain degrees, and that led to the power and complexity of the piece.

You simply seem to be stretching the facts to fit your own thesis, and ignoring the solid counterarguments that Nathan and now Greg have brought to the table.

As for Bridesmaids? Nothing about that film is awards worthy in any fashion (in my opinion, of course!), and the talk for Melissa McCarthy has stemmed from her dedication to the role and her bravery, not because her character was more sympathetic than Kristen. Kristen's performance, now that I think about it, was particularly obnoxious and of the "mugging to the camera" variety, although I know you've mentioned she deserves an Oscar nomination many times. We'll disagree on that.

Furthermore, perhaps Bonham Carter was recognized for King's Speech not because the character was "relatively flat, but dutifully loyal and proper 'supportive wife'" but rather because that was one of the few films she was in that was well received overall and in which she gave a good performance. It is far easier to get an Oscar nomination for appearing in a film that is competing in other categories vs. ones in which the acting is the only thing that is being recognized. Look at Bonham Carter's filmography, the only other role of hers from the 00s that is even remotely "awards worthy" is Big Fish, and that film didn't receive any major Academy recognition regardless. She was also excellent in Fight Club in 1999, but if you recall that film was despised by many and never could have received any real awards traction.

I won't go into American Beauty because you didn't really bother to either.

Your refusal to discuss independent films all but renders your viewpoint moot. There is indeed a divide between the mainstream and the independent, but at the end of the day it is all CINEMA and thus all of it should be entered into the argument. The fact of the matter is that people responded as they did to Something Borrowed because it is a shit film with horribly written characters, and it had nothing to do with the simple fact that they were women.

Diane Lowe said...

I had the impression that Charlize Theron won for 'Monster' because she did the "oh look the pretty girl made herself 'ugly' to get the prize!" thing. Something similar came up for Nicole Kidman's performance in The Hours.

Jan said...

The trend I noticed - one that Scott doesn't explicitly say, but implies - is that the when in mainstream pictures an actress is playing a part that either (1) not sympathetic to men or (2) was not a traditionally male role, she is judged in proportionate harshness to the character's antipathy to men or the character's dissimilarity to celebrate male archetypes.

Women playing crime-lords, fighters, survivors, killers, agents... they garner acclaim for exploring the dark parts of our humanity. Women portraying women who don't have an exciting/dark job or doing things men don't have a clue about, ignored or demeaned.

The double standard exists.

Jack said...

You *can* agree to disagree when interpretation is involved.

Jaialin said...

No factual evidence? just see recent nominations. We'll see the same for current nominations too.

Tomb said...

Mendelson wrote an interesting piece on the double standard (sexism) in film. Cool to see a man with the balls to call it out.
I'm disappointed, but not surprised at the backlash expressed.
I'd like to read more of Mendelson's reviews.


Related Posts with Thumbnails