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.