Ms. Representation: Women writing women
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is the way Nicole Holofcener portrays women in her films
I love rom-coms. Unabashedly. What’s not to love? That much-maligned genre in the world of literature, films and television, is actually its most gender-just (because of our heteronormative gaze of course, and that’s a debate that needs to be had too); you cannot make a man-woman rom-com without showing women on screen for long amounts of time. When I read a piece by the TV critic Emily Nussbaum on how the show Jane the Virgin is not a ‘guilty pleasure’ but is an ‘actual’ piece of work, it spoke truth to me. She explored its layers and spoke of its nuances. She argued that these shows, books and films are called guilty pleasures because they make ‘women’s lives look like fun’. I found myself nodding, throughout the piece. Nussbaum has also written a wonderful essay on Sex and the City (SATC the TV show, not the movies which would give them the bad rep), and Carrie Bradshaw, who didn’t need anyone’s permission to be. For a while, at least. Again, it spoke to me.
In fact, last year, I participated in a panel on Guilty Pleasures and spoke about this very same thing; about how under-appreciated rom-coms and chick lits are. This sort of genre-bashing – ‘you read hard boiled crime fiction? I read only literary things’, or ‘Chick flicks a?’ puts me off. Because as a long-time lover of the medium, I feel most at home while watching a rom-com, and I have no qualms in saying it. It is hard work to write a good rom-com that speaks to feminists. And women writers and directors have achieved this over and over again. While not shutting down studios with losses. This is worth studying. More than it is being.
A favourite filmmaker of mine, who works in the general area of rom-coms, much the way SATC did, is Nicole Holofcener. She’s directed films like Walking and Talking, Friends With Money, Please Give and Enough Said, among others. Coincidentally, she also directed four episodes of SATC. Her films are not peopled by shiny, polished-up types (though I have no problems with those kind of rom-coms too). These are raw, not in the brutal sense. But in the realistic sense. Please Give, for instance begins with breasts of women of various ages (no face is shown) being examined, as the title cards roll. Young, old, fragile, healthy… One of the lead characters, played by Rebecca Hall, is a breast cancer radiographer. Kate (Catherine Keener a regular in Holofcener flicks) is ridden with middle class guilt, displays implicit race bias (she thinks a man standing on the road is homeless, and offers him food. He is waiting in a restaurant queue. And is black.), is buying dead people’s furniture for cheap and making a profit out of it. She is anxious. On the edge. A feeling some of us, are very familiar with.
The question of, how guilty is guilty enough is one that all of us are familiar with. Particularly as women and those who live in a country of incredible disparity and it stares us in our face all the time. When we waste food, when we buy something frivolous and expensive because it makes us happy, but also a bit guilty. Forget, disparities, we feel guilty, when we watch a rom-com when we could be watching ‘cinema’. Please Give digs deeper to see how far this guilt goes. The good news is, it’s there, but not enough to interfere with our delusions and we can keep going on with our lives, feeling content with our ‘acts of kindness’... That’s what I got from the film.
In Friends With Money, Jennifer Aniston, who plays Olivia is hard on cash and working as a maid. Her group of friends, in this scenario however, are a little different than the ones in the sitcom. One, they are adults. And two, they are super rich. Though Olivia is fine with this, her friends do feel guilty about throwing money at all kinds of things, while she cleans people’s homes. If Cinderella were living now, and her step-sisters weren’t cookie-cutter type bad women, but each just lost in their own journeys and difficult paths (without having to worry about money), that would be Friends With Money.
This year, I am looking forward to the Mellissa McCarthy-starrer Can You Ever Forgive Me, with screenplay by Holofcener, based on the writer Lee Israel’s life, when she forged literary letters to make a living.