Critic’s Notebook: The Trouble With Hollywood’s Gender Flips

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There is a slight moral miscalculation here: that in order for a film to be considered feminist, it has to show women fighting men, and not each other. But life pits women against one another, and eliding that is just as ridiculous as staging all intra-female conflicts in kiddie pools full of Jell-O — it ignores what women are actually like. One of the most intriguing facets of “Ocean’s 8” is its implied bisexuality, and the hinted tension between Debbie and her partner in crime (if not more), Lou (Cate Blanchett). The subtext would have been more interesting as text; it would supply a true conflict and depth of character for the two stars and make the film feel truly transformative. But for all the female characters jammed into these films, they can shy away from revealing the complexity of female experiences.

It’s hard not to watch these female ensembles and yearn for the heights of “Bridesmaids,” or more recently, the coastal California social satire-murder mystery “Big Little Lies,” both of which lean into conflict between women instead of shying away. These stories acknowledge that women have problems that originate within and between themselves, not just in their relationships with men. In short, they let women be interesting. And when their feuding crews of women do team up, it feels earned instead of assumed. (Both stories were also originated by women.) Besides, comedy requires the upending of social expectation, and the funniest parts of these projects are the moments when the characters wrestle free of feminine demands — not by “acting like men,” but by acting out as women.

“Bridesmaids” was Ms. McCarthy’s breakout film, and though she has since become a star, her subsequent roles have failed to match the unbridled inappropriateness she embodied through her bridesmaid, Megan — a woman who shows up to a ritzy engagement party in a golf cap, announces her intension to “climb” a male guest “like a tree” and proffers a “Fight Club” theme for the bachelorette party. Compare that to her “Life of the Party” character, who is well-meaning, universally loved and (naturally) less funny. When women are moved to the center of the frame, they’re expected to act more womanly — even when they’re playing roles originally occupied by men. It’s interesting, and a little sad, that the highlight of Ms. McCarthy’s recent career has involved her straight-up playing a male character, channeling the impotent rage of former press secretary Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live.”

The meta conversation around these gender swaps has focused on the manboy backlash, but now a feminist resistance is brewing, too. When a female “Lord of the Flies” project was announced at Warner Bros., the writer Roxane Gay tweeted that it “makes no sense” as “the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women.” So far, many of these female reboots have drummed up female support that matches or exceeds the passion of their male detractors. It can feel as if it’s a kind of feminist imperative to buy a ticket. But as the novelty fades, these movies will begin to be assessed not on their politics, but on their merits.

The men of “Oceans Eleven” got to do one thing the women of “Ocean’s 8” do not: star in a good movie. The construction of Debbie’s supposedly masterful heist is so sloppy that the one rule she sets for it — no men in her crew — is limply betrayed in the climax, when a male member of the franchise shimmies in to execute its most strenuous element. Upon second viewing, the ’80s “Ghostbusters” and “Overboard” aren’t lofty critical achievements, either, but at least they’re originals, which gave them the room to become phenomena. Note to Hollywood: When women complained that they aren’t afforded the same roles in Hollywood that men are, they weren’t speaking literally.

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