Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Movies and Womens' Identity

A recent international business trip allowed me quite a bit of time for movie watching. These days the better airlines have personal entertainment centers for each seat, even in economy class. Last week I wrote about one of the movies I watched which I really enjoyed – In Time. On my homeward-bound trip the other day I didn't watch very much. The flight schedule left me quite tired and I spent as much time as I could trying to rest. While waiting on the runway in Chicago and then during the flight to Denver I did catch a film called Monte Carlo. As with In Time, I hadn't heard much about this film or read any prior reviews, nor did I have my teenage daughter's opinion to guide me. But the film looked light and fluffy, just about what my brain needed after many, many hours of travel. I also wanted to see what the director would do with a movie that featured three women in the lead roles.

Before I continue, I should make a disclaimer about my skills as a movie critic. Basically, I'm not, at least not a particularly profound one. So I'm not going to dwell a lot on the story line, the cinematography or many of the other details that a film reviewer might consider. The film follows three young women on their trip of a lifetime to Paris. One has just graduated from high school, the second is her new sister through the remarriage of her mother, and the third her best friend from work. All are from an unspecified small town in Texas. After they arrive in Paris, through a series of mishaps and fortuitous circumstances these young women find themselves traveling to Monte Carlo and living the life of the rich and famous. In the end, their false front is revealed, but along the way the three each learn something about themselves and what true happiness means to each one.

The film is enjoyable as long as one doesn't expect too much of it, which no one should have. One of the film's positive virtues is that it speaks at least somewhat of the hollow emptiness of wealth and fame. However a key aspect of the film left me quite dissatisfied. For all three of these young women finding her identity and her happiness involves, in fact I would say requires, her finding a man. The film essentially says to teenage girls (whom I imagine were the primary intended audience) that they cannot be truly complete and happy without “Mr. Right.” Even though the film is fairly generous in terms of who “Mr. Right” might be, it doesn't portray any alternative scenario for bliss. The not-so-subtle message is that until you find that right man, you as a woman will not be fully satisfied in life. One reviewer on  the Rotten Tomatoes website stated it this way:

“Harmless enough to a point...but the idea that girls should aspire to little more than acquiring a boyfriend, a home or a brand-new pair of Blahniks will be desperately depressing for any parents dragged along.”  

Unfortunately I don't know that this reviewer accurately predicts the reason for the depression most parents might feel on viewing such a film. We have been so saturated with the idea that a young woman's fulfillment lies in finding her man, that most people won't even stop to reflect on this fundamental theme. We don't even really question it. Certainly the filmmakers didn't. In fact they recognized it as a sure way to win an audience.

Some might say that I'm asking the film to be something it never intended. But if we never expect more of our movies, we'll never be given anything more. Hollywood often retreats into claims that it just gives audiences what they want and stubbornly resists calls to offer different portrayals of life. The standard pablum coming from Hollywood offers women and men primarily tired and trite cliches of manhood and womanhood. Young women in particular are rarely offered positive models of what they could become. Miss Representation has focused their energy against changing this in the media, not only in films but across the board. It doesn't even require huge steps. In this film couldn't the director and writers have offered any alternative outcome for even one of the three young women, and outcome in which she found her way in life without needing a man beside her?

I am not arguing that women and men don't need one another. In fact I believe quite the opposite. Women and men need each other very much, but not to fulfill and confirm their identities. We need each other in order to see the world in broader color and greater depth, among other reasons. But we don't need each other in order to be complete individuals. Men generally do not receive the same pressure in this regard as women (except maybe in the Church), so when I see movies such as Monte Carlo I remember the phrase falsely attributed to Gloria Steinem: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I hope that at least I can communicate to my daughter that her identity and purpose rest in something greater than simply finding “Mr. Right.”

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