If contemporary feminism taught me anything growing up, it was that I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be. A doctor? Why not! First woman president? Sure! Over the years, women are in more powerful career positions than ever before (in America, at least) and while workplace sexism clearly still exists, we can’t help but wonder why Hollywood continued to wage war on career-minded ladies.
NPR tackled the issue this week in an episode of Fresh Air, featuring commentary from movie critic John Powers. Powers realizes that the demonization of working women in Hollywood movies has always existed, but took his opportunity on Fresh Air to discuss the recently released romantic comedies that many consider misogynist: The Ugly Truth and The Proposal.
Despite the fact that both films are executive produced by their stars — Katherine Heigl and Sandra Bullock, the film still reeks of sexism. Powers explains:
In The Proposal, Sandra Bullock plays a boss from hell who’s literally forced to kneel before her good-guy assistant. In the lousy new comedy The Ugly Truth, Kathryn Heigl plays a control-freak TV producer forced to hire a loutish commentator — that’s Gerard Butler — who gives her a pair of vibrator panties. Predictably, it’s the lewd beast who tames the brainy, high-powered beauty.
As NPR mentions (and as we all know) this theme is nothing new, especially in romantic comedies. Modern rom-com career ladies seem to have a lot in common: they are beautiful, obnoxiously anal-retentive, socially awkward, uptight and, of course, completely unable to “snag a man” due to their career obsessions.
Rosalind Russell once estimated that she’d played 23 different versions of what she termed Alice in Careerland: strong working women who, deep down, actually wanted to be housewives.
Since heaven knows having a family and a successful career would be way too much trouble for a woman — when would we have time to bake pies for our mates?
The hilarious thing about this, to steal Russell’s term, Alice in Careerland role is that it’s not based in reality at all. The people I know — both men and women — want ambitious partners who can support themselves. Wouldn’t you?
Although feminism has inarguably made society better, it also unleashed an ongoing psychic backlash,” Powers said. “Even as women began attaining positions of power, Hollywood didn’t reflect how this change actually entered our collective experience.”
Instead, it began cooking up dark, paranoid fantasies about unwomanly women and pushy shrews. It served up a parade of Prada-wearing devils: Sigourney Weaver‘s demonic executive in Working Girl, Tilda Swinton‘s brittle corporate shyster in Michael Clayton, and pretty much the whole career of Glenn Close, at least since she boiled that bunny in Fatal Attraction.
Powers, like most of us, can see how ridiculous the entire genre is from a mile away. We are surrounded by intelligent, professional, successful women who also happen to have social lives, lovers and — gasp — even children!
If most people, including the women making these films, understand how out-of-touch they are, why hasn’t anything changed?
Many of us, as Dorothy Snarker discussed in May, are over the rom-com genre entirely — but does it really have to be that way? Can’t we watch a stupid, sorta-funny love story once in awhile without being ashamed of ourselves? Powers, quite the feminist critic, thinks there is only one way to change things: “It has to start with powerful women in Hollywood refusing to write, star in or finance films that wantonly disrespect women.”
Sounds like a good idea to me.