Friday, January 6, 2012

Women Behaving Badly

We’ll know feminism has finally taken root when the female leads in the stories we tell ourselves behave just as badly as the male leads do. We haven’t gotten there yet, but two current movies are giving us an idea of how things might look when we do.

Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the title character of David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is as grimly antisocial and borderline fanatical as any male movie vigilante (think Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name). This is one woman who could care less what people think of her, mainly because she doesn’t think much of almost anyone else. In fact, the whole purpose of the spiky Goth getup that gives the movie its name is to keep people at a safe distance.

Noomi Rapace nailed Lisbeth’s look and her wiry physicality in the original three-film Swedish series, but the directors betrayed her by focusing too much on her too-soft eyes. In the books all the movies were based on, Lisbeth’s hard-won ferocity and incredible mental and martial arts skills make her feel almost like a comic-book superhero, but the Swedish films reduce her to a wounded girl in need of protection, her bravery just so much bravado. The Swedish films also fetishize the violence she endures, which makes her come off as a victim rather than a victor.

No one can dramatize a talky, records-search-heavy quest for truth better than Fincher, so the latest Dragon Tattoo is a far better film than the flabby original. Taut editing, brilliant sound design, an uneasy Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack and smart camera placement maintain a strong sense of tension as crack researcher Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) set out to solve the mystery of a missing girl. Meanwhile, the generally dark interiors contrast dramatically—and ironically—with the bright lights and blinding whites of a glass-walled house that turns out to be hiding the darkest secret of all.

But the main attraction, here as in the books, is Lisbeth, a brooding figure who nearly always keeps her own counsel and maintains her cool. The film’s ad campaign got a lot of heat for sexually objectifying its heroine, who is often shown nude while Craig is clothed. The film does the same, following Mara’s curves a lot closer and more salaciously than it does Craig’s equally buff body when the two strip down. That’s the crassest kind of sexual exploitation—and an invasion of privacy Lisbeth would no doubt have hated, as Melissa Silverstein pointed out. But if Fincher fetishizes Lisbeth’s sexuality, he honors her unapologetic, hardboiled competence. There’s nothing girlish about this Lisbeth, and no plea for pity in her guarded gaze.

In the Swedish movie, Lisbeth is toyed with and beaten by a group of toughs in the subway, as if she had to earn our sympathy by being victimized. In the American version, a thief snatches Lisbeth’s backpack in the subway and she goes after him, getting it back and escaping his attempt at revenge. It’s a dazzling chase sequence—and an economic illustration of the skills that make Lisbeth a formidable foe.

Young Adult’s Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is scary in a whole different way. As immature and unrealistic as all those Peter Pan boys who keep getting lead roles (and leading ladies) these days, she’s an id on the rampage, leaving the middling professional success and black hole of a social life she’s achieved in the big city to return to her hometown and “save” her high school boyfriend from the domestic bliss she assumes must be suffocating him.

Theron, who was so aggressively messed-up in Monster a few years ago, strides into this role with the same ferocious commitment. Mavis is an unholy, stunningly self-absorbed mess, and Theron’s vivid portrayal and Diablo Cody’s clever script, which is exaggerated enough to play like satire while mining the emotional rawness that makes Mavis run, make her just barely sympathetic without ever quite making her likeable.

“The conventional knowledge in Hollywood is that an unsympathetic female character can tank a movie,” Cody told Indiewire. “[S]ometimes I wonder if it comes down to mommy issues. The idea of a cold, unlikeable woman or a woman who is not in control of herself is genuinely frightening to people, because it threatens civilization itself or threatens the American family.”

But the stereotype of the nurturing, supportive wife/girlfriend/mother is just that, of course, and the more room opens up in our society for women to live their lives freely, the more taboos on "inappropriate" female behavior lighten up, sometimes even disappearing altogether.

TV has been reflecting social trends back at us faster and more boldly than film for a while now, and it's ahead on this curve too, building whole series around female characters who dare us to like them. Not even Lisbeth is as egregiously ill behaved or cringe-inducingly neurotic as the leading ladies of two of last season's best shows, Enlightened and Homeland. And this week, the nastily narcissistic Patsy and Edina are stumbling back for three anniversary episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, reminding us that TV was brave enough to debut a comedy about a neglectful, childish mother and her booze-soaked bestie 20 years ago. Ab Fab's Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Enlightened's Amy (Laura Dern) care way too much what other people think of them, but their creators make sure we never mistake them for the admirable creatures they believe themselves to be.

But there’s one barrier even those shows are afraid to cross: Their main characters are played by beautiful, always thin (or thinnish), almost always young (or youngish) women. So let me amend what I said at the start:

We’ll know feminism has finally taken root when the female leads in the stories we tell ourselves behave just as badly as the male leads do—and when female characters as odd-looking as Patton Oswalt, the old schoolmate Mavis hooks up with in Young Adult, can score with male characters as spectacularly good-looking as Charlize Theron and it’s played as a positive development, not a sight gag.

Written for TimeOff

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