What if strong, successful females were not cast as domineering bitches? A review of The Proposal

I watched The Proposal last night. Though I am a Sandra Bullock fan, I was less than impressed. Particularly irksome from a feminist point of view was the tired perpetuation of the notion that powerful women are domineering bitches.

To be successful, the movie indicates, Bullock’s character (Margaret Tate) has become a cold-hearted control freak whose employees fear and loathe her in equal quantity. Of course she is single, family less, and friendless because women who care about their career obviously can’t care about anything else.

Early in the film, her employees send around “it’s here” instant messages, warning that Margaret is about to enter the building. Tellingly, she is an “it” rather than a subject – like Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada, she is demonized into an inhumane she-monster. Later, as she leaves her office, another warning is sent that “the witch is on her broom.”

Why is it that cruel male bosses are not similarly depicted? When they are horrid, they are most often mocked as humorous buffoons rather than depicted as vile (think 9 to 5). They are not called “it” or warlocks, or, as Bullock’s character is, “satan’s mistress.” Moreover, there is no suggestion that their male gender contributes to their horribleness. In contrast, female bosses bitchiness is often linked to their “failed” femininity – they are not doing what their “supposed to” – not cooking, cleaning, wiving, mothering, nurturing…

In The Proposal, Margaret is “saved” by the boy-faced Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) who schools her about love, family, and proper femininity. Once she forces him into a deal to marry her to avoid deportation back to Canada, he quickly loses his simpering employee stance and turns the tables (and starts to “wear the pants” in the relationship). He makes her kneel before him on the ground, mocks her inability to navigate a boat ladder in heels, and blackmails her into giving him a promotion. As pointed out here, this story would never fly if the roles were reversed…

The film explicitly pokes fun at feminists when Andrew explains to his mom and grandmother that he is not helping Margaret navigate her heavy suitcase because “she’s a feminist.” Here, in a double-jibe, the movie insinuates women really are incapable of hefting their own suitcases while also perpetuating the notion that ALL feminism is about is who will open the door or carry the bags…

At the start of the film Margaret is dismayed at the sight of her aging face in the mirror. As the film continues, she is presented nude in many scenes – and though her body meets the thin, firm ideals of U.S. culture, she is markedly ashamed of her body and constantly instructs Andrew “don’t look at me.”

Margaret is ridiculous in her crippling high heels and teeny lingerie in the rugged Alaska setting that is home to the Paxton family empire. This good-ole slice of USA is ruled by a domineering dad who mocks Andrew for having a female boss (furthering the anti-feminist undercurrents of the film that suggests we need to go back to “the good old days” when men were bosses and women stayed in their place). The mom (Mary Steenburgen) and grandma (Betty White) have no leadership in this male empire, rather, they dodder around smiling, delivering food, and being oh-so-excited about the pending wedding. They, like Andrew’s x-girlfriend (who works in a “properly feminine” profession – teaching), are used to depict positive femininity in contrast to Margaret’s ball-breaker aura.

As if the stereotypical depiction of smart successful women AS bitches who NEED a good man (and a good fuck) to save them were not enough, the film also trades in racial stereotypes.  Oscar Nunez (of The Office) plays Ramone, a heavily accented, highly stereotyped Latino who works as a stripper, a grocery clerk, and an inept catering employee – yeah, because Latnino’s always have multiple low-paying jobs which they suck at. Ugh.

This movie is yet more proof that a female director and a strong female lead do not a feminist-friendly movie make…

What if we had gender strainers rather than gender boxes?

My mom was recently here for a visit. She and I do not see eye to eye on gender. She is a big believer in biological determinism, while I am a card-carrying social constructionist. I concede that our personalities and proclivities are certainly PARTLY determined by biology/genetics (or nature), I give much more credit to societal conditioning and context (or nurture).

I cringe at phrases such as “boys will be boys” and “of course she’s emotional, she’s a girl.” I am equally perturbed by “men and women are just different” or anything that smacks of assuming there are two distinct genders.

I realize that many people fall into “traditional boy” and “traditional girl” categories, yet I think MANY less would do so if there were not so many societal punishments for failing to cram ourselves into those tiny, solid gender boxes.

Why can’t we think of gender like a strainer instead?

You know how when you use a strainer with holes that are quite big to strain pasta shapes that are rather small how a handful escape and end up in the sink? Well, it’s the same with gender. If you dump a whole batch of boys into the masculine strainer, many of them will happily stay in the strainer, but others, for whatever reason, squeeze through the holes. These boys are the ones that the “traditional boy” strainer does not work for.

If we thought of gender in this way – as a construct that is not solid like a box, but full of escape holes like a strainer – then perhaps it would be more acceptable to end up in the sink rather than on the plate covered in societal sauce.

I know a gender strainer doesn’t sound as catchy as a gender box – nor does gender sieve or gender colander. But, as my mom would say, it’s only NATURAL I think in cooking terminology, I am, after all, female.

What if Lost time travelled to a feminist future?

While island life on Lost has hardly been a feminist utopia, it has provided fertile ground for an analysis of gender norms and hierarchies. Via traditionally masculine characters such as Jack, Sawyer, and Locke, as well as through the representation of various other ‘non-normative’ masculinities, the show suggests there are many ways to ‘be a man.’ More importantly, it has at times suggested that perhaps being human is more important than being a masculine man or a feminine woman. After all, when you are fighting for your life, ‘doing gender right’ is hardly at the top of you priority list. The show has certainly not been consistent with this motif though, and frequently lapses into tired, sexist love triangles, masculinized aggression fests, and save the poor little lady narratives.

Jack and Sawyer exude macho, hetero-masculinity (and annoyingly try to out-masculine each other in their love triangle with Kate), but their characters have nevertheless challenged the ‘stock male action hero stud’ type at various points throughout the show’s narrative arc. They are more fully fleshed out than many a male character (and no, I am not referring to the ubiquitously de-shirted Sawyer). They are shown to be emotional, complex, vulnerable, nurturing – neither, in short, hold entirely to the Rambo-man-in-jungle motif. In fact, Locke is the more Rambo-like character – a rugged individualist and would be patriarch. Yet, he does take a collective/communal approach to solving problems and does not try to become the alpha male Jack and Sawyer do. He is a strong leader, but not one who lords it over the other characters. He, like Kate, is decisive but not bossy, strong-minded yet not dictatorly.

Jack and Sawyer, on the other hand, fall into the traditional ‘good boy/bad boy’ dyad. One week Jack is the good and Sawyer bad, the next week it flips. Via these characters, we are prompted to consider differing versions of masculinity. Do we like the good boy Jack who rules out of (supposed) benevolence or the bad boy don’t-give-a-damn Sawyer who makes his (supposedly) selfish nature clear?

While the show keeps the gender hierarchy firmly in place form the most part (with masculinity being valued over femininity), it also suggests that this may not be a good thing for (island) society. Jack and Sawyer are shown as too rash and domineering, Ben is a downright creep-fest, and Locke puts himself first far too often. Kate would be a far better leader than any of these patriarchs. Yet, the show maddeningly lets her slip into stale feminine norms too often, which, I suspect, is due to non-feminist writers penning the script…

What are these writers thinking by marooning her OFF the island and putting her into one-dimensional mommy mode? Kate is hardly the type to drop everything in the name of motherhood, let alone your typical stranded and awaiting savior female. And for freak’s sake, could she stop taking so much crap from Jack and Sawyer? Sleep with ’em as often as you like Kate, but keep your head on!

While Kate is back-tracking into the “problem that has no name” this season (re: Betty Friedan), Sun’s presence in season 5 could be hurtling towards a more feminist future. Unmoored from dad and husband, I am looking forward to where this season takes her.

Perhaps this season the show will break with the rather normative way it has presented gender thus far, with females being framed in relation to males and/or to their children (or desire for them). The season opener made this motif particularly clear. All the male characters were actively trying to save the island, save each other, and figure out the mystery while the females were either in save-the-kid mode or sidekick mode (Sun being the only exception).

The second show of the series was not much better. Penny was merely the loving helper to Desmond and Julia continued to play a secondary role in comparison to the ‘island saving’ males. The female sidekick to Faraday (I can’t remember her name, how telling is that???) was mere dressing to the narrative. Plus, she was infuriatingly depicted as going all gaga when Faraday declared his love. Yuck. And, while the ‘army’ was headed by a strong, gun-toting female, the real leader was (once again) male.

Thus far, all the time zones the island has travelled to have been hetero-normative, patriarchal, and cisgended. Maybe as the island is skipping through time, it will land in a feminist time-zone, one in which females and males equally share in the adventure and leadership, in which women too are the saviors, the important scientists, the visionaries. We need more than Kate and Sun and Julia – and more than the vision we are given now of mainly white hetero hyper-masculine males being the most valuable and valued island inhabitants. Perhaps they need to bring in Ilene Chaiken, Diablo Cody, Amy Sherman-Palladino, or Tina Fey to help pen a few episodes… What would Liz Lemon do on the island? How about Bette? What about Max (The L Word) or another non-cisgendered character/story-line?

(As a side note, Sawyer can keep his shirt off for all I care, but please avoid the lame meta-textual references reminding the hetero female audience they are being treated to a skin-show!)