Ms Representation: Feminists have all the fun
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the Netflix show, The Breaker Upperers
I cannot recommend The Breaker Upperers, a 2018 New Zealand buddy film streaming on Netflix, enough. Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek have written, directed and acted as the two leading women in this screwy, oddball flick. Mel (Madeleine) and Jen (Jackie) are professional break-up artists who “will ruthlessly end any romance” and work for weaklings who don’t have the guts, as one character puts it, to talk to their partners. The Breaker Upperers is what film writers need to watch to unlearn all the bad writing that passes as female roles in cinema. Mel and Jen are not perfect, strong role models -- far from it. But more than the imperfections, the writing in this film shows exactly how to not mistake characteristics for character arcs while writing women in lead roles.
Mel is the softer one of the duo in this break-up firm. She is bisexual, easily endears herself to people, cannot be mean to anyone, and yet, does some things that are morally ambiguous. Jen is the ruthless one, especially cut-throat when it comes to work. She can cut people off, leaving them hanging, having delivered brutal blows, ending years of romance or marriage. And yet, when Mel and Jen fight in the film, it is Jen who makes the effort to win her friend back. See characteristics, different from the journeys of the characters.
A karaoke of Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back to Me had me giggling for long, and all of the scenes with Jen and her mum are wacky and there’s almost always something feminist lingering underneath all the crazy things going on. It’s almost always fun. In one scene, Mel is trying to explain, to Jen’s mother, how it is being attracted to women. “It’s something you’re born with, like a genetic mutation, like X-men, but like, in vaginas.” She then says “Boom!” crosses her arms and makes a V symbols with both arms and says, “Vulvarine.” In another scene, Jen’s mum tells her, “I am surprised your friendship lasted as long as it did, actually. Rightly or wrongly, we tweedy women have always prioritised the men in our lives, haven’t we?”
The Breaker Upperers is what Bend it like Beckham would have been if it were made now, I think. The two women here too, in the flashback, share a man (he isn’t half as nice as coach Joe though). This film never takes the men, or its romance angles very seriously. The movie’s female gaze also ensures that the women aren’t tone policed. In fact, nothing is policed, not their jokes, sexualities, desires, love, profession… The film remains steadfastly about the friendship between the two women and their on-screen chemistry really creates some wonderful, awkward moments. It’s as if they are really exasperating each other.