This week's punching bag is "Kick-Ass 2," which, from what I've gathered from sources I trust and respect, deserves it. I stayed home and played "Borderlands 2" because I felt that playing a shooty Xbox game was probably better for my mental health than watching teens refer to each other as "axe wounds."
It's easy to call out a movie like "Kick-Ass 2" for its grotesqueries, and Mark Millar is practically trolling us by now with his totally ignorant comments about rape in comics. That doesn't mean it's not important to do so – colleagues and friends like Kristy Puchko and Kate Erbland have taken it to task in ways that are beyond my ken -- but I'm glad I don't have to this week. (Especially since the comments on Kristy's piece are proof positive that comments sections are vile bogs of men's rights advocates and people who generally hate anyone who identifies as female.)
I feel a little bit guilty for calling out "Austenland" instead. There's always this queasy feeling that comes with knocking a film with its heart in the right place, a film by women that genuinely wants to be for women. "Austenland" is unique in that it's being distributed by Sony Picture Classics, which is typically associated with art house releases, and its co-president Tom Bernard has made it clear that they are seeking out – practically honoring – that really not-so-elusive female target audience.
Bernard told The Hollywood Reporter, "At Sundance, women loved the movie, but we found that the few reviews that we did get from male critics were vicious… We just said, 'Fine, it's not for you. Don't see it. Can't come.'" Then they held a high tea at Jane Seymour's house in Malibu for female press.
Aside from the fact that female film critics are even scarcer than supposed femme-centric film fare, and that going to a festival is like throwing your money into a pit in the ground and setting it on fire unless you're on staff somewhere, I don't know what female critics he's been reading. If he's going by Rotten Tomatoes, all the female critics (as of this writing) have given it a big fat splat, Sundance or not.
The problem is that "Austenland" doesn't do women any favors. It's not enough to hire a female screenwriter/director (Jerusha Hess) to adapt a book by woman (Shannon Hale) starring a bunch of women (Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, and Jane Seymour) if the final product stinks. I saw it with my own eyes, and it is a bad, bad movie. It is boring, unpleasant, and annoying from top of bottom. The only thing I enjoyed was the music and the sight of Bret McKenzie in breeches. Thinking about, even months later, makes me angry. The fact that it's being trotted out as some example of how to get women into theaters is gross. (It's important to point out, too, that Hess has said she had nothing to do with this marketing strategy. She told Indiewire, "I never came into it thinking 'Oh, this is just a movie for women.' I just wanted to make a movie for myself.")
Either it will bomb and studio execs will sit back and sigh and think, "Well, we tried to give them what they want!" or it will do well and we'll have to endure more of this pap.
Ladies, we don't have to accept this. You don't have to enjoy something, or be afraid of criticizing it, just because it was made by other women, and, ostensibly, for you. (That "you" only extends to heterosexual, cisgender, upper middle class white women, by the way, because Hollywood is blind to the interests and needs of people who don't buy lots of comic books or kicky "Mr. Darcy" mugs.) What we need is thoughtful representation of people in stories. It doesn't matter who those people are or who creates them and brings them to life. I would rather watch a thousand movies or TV shows written by guys if they have the sort of respect and humanity that everyone craves and deserves.
No one is claiming that "Austenland" is a feminist endeavor, but if it's by women and for women, it needs to be examined with a feminist eye. I'd argue that it should be held up to even higher standards than normal, because if we can't create media that's worthy of our attention, well, I give up. A movie can be enjoyable, fun, fluffy, and romantic without doing its characters (and its audience) a disservice. Why should studios bother giving female filmmakers a chance if the end result is worthless?
We still look to the Bechdel test to see if a film gets a feminist gold star or not. As Kate Erbland points out, the Bechdel test doesn't really mean anything without nuance and context. Months later, I can't remember if "Austenland" had anything that would pass the Bechdel test. On the other hand, "Kick-Ass 2" does, but only because the teen girls are busy making each other crap their pants while vomiting or encouraging each other to off themselves. It seems like the Bechdel test is like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a shorthand for something that was a pretty good idea at the time but has since become overused and outdated.
On the other hand, I saw "Short Term 12" and tried to keep track of all the Bechdel-friendly conversations. I stopped at about five because I was too busy enjoying the movie, which happened to be written and directed by a man. Destin Cretton crafted an ensemble of characters with the sort of tender humanity that everyone deserves. Our protagonist Grace is a young woman who is complicated and fascinating; as an employee at a place for at-risk kids in between foster homes, she's steady on the outside but crumbling inside. She's struggling with her own painful history as a confluence of factors bring it back to the forefront of her mind; she sees it reflected in one of her new charges, a teen named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) with kohl-lined eyes and artfully ripped jeans. Grace makes bad decisions as often as she makes good ones. The other characters are equally nuanced, in turns hilarious and loving and tragic and selfish.
Sophia McDougall has written a wonderful take-down of "Strong Female Characters" in the New Statesman. Although no one in "Austenland" could be accused of even trying to be strong, McDougall's list of what she wants to see in female characters rings out like a bell calling us to action.
"I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn't change one of those girls to a boy."
I don't play a tiny violin on the regular for white dudes, but I acknowledge that the society we live in is toxic for everyone. I'm complicit in looking for SFCs in the media I write about, and I have been known to abuse the term "kick ass" in regards to cool action heroines. I know that this article, and many of the articles I write, is about a certain slice of humanity that excludes a lot of other people, especially feminists of color. At its core, feminism is about humanity. The fact is that we all win when things aren't crappy, and it doesn't matter who the creators are or if the characters are talking about their love lives or any number of things we've come to define as benchmarks.
Unfortunately, "Austenland" is lacking as much humanity as "Kick-Ass 2." It's just trussed up in fancy period clothing.