Whitney is for the parents, kids.

I also watched Whitney last night. It will tangle a viewer up! It is a show that is a mess, and a mess that you think you should watch so that you can talk about such messes, but then the mess is so sticky and bad that you think you should leave the room.  Like a lot of things lately, it got me conflicted.

The good news is we have a show about with a central female character.  I was interested in the sitcom to see if it hearkened back to that earlier era of “real lady” sitcoms from the early 1990s, when we had Roseanne and Grace Under Fire.  Sure, the advertising for Whitney was certainly selling a young-ish kind of misery (well parsed by Splitsider here)  instead of the middle-aged ladies above, but the show suggested it would have whiffs of the same autonomy of a complicated woman leading the show, using the gap between idealized femininity and real life as a motor for the show’s comedy and heart.

The bad news is Whitney spends 98% of the show in underwear. Like, for the entire week that they produced the pilot, she went to the costume trailer and maybe asked “still no pants? ” I think there is so much lingerie in the first episode to scream to the audience, “really, it’s okay, we are not that kind of show. Nothing you know will be threatened here. We aren’t a ‘smart’ show. Look at her ass! No challenges, promise!”  And then, the show goes on to suggest that having a girlfriend who eats or who uses mild sarcasm is coded as “loud” and overall an unattractive burden to the poor lout who happens to love her.  We see this as a classic hot chick tries to hit on Whitney’s boyfriend, wondering at his insane choice (in a very attractive successful woman, who seems to maybe slouch more than the hot girl?).

I don’t see this as an attempt to win over a female audience. This is not Girlfriends or any kind of network ready SATC rehashing.  This show is pretending it wants me to watch it, which is why it has such a strange boomerang of irony and generic form (the much commented on laugh track, three cameras, and constant wink). As Troy Patterson said at Slate:

Well isn’t she fresh. And isn’t that stale…There is a peculiar flavor to this cheese. If you caught a snippet of Whitney unawares, you would be forgiven for assuming that it’s one of those shows-within-a-show that exists to caricature bad television.

My guess is that this more akin to network TV branding lineups as “Laughapaloozas” in the early 90s, appropriating what they lately identified as youth culture and using its energy to promise a safe explanation to everybody else. What I’m saying is, I think Whitney’s  target audience are not 30 somethings who identify with the  weak gawk and struggle of commitment and having nice things (really, who has a couch in their bedroom, or a dresser in their walk in closet? And lingerie is expensive, folks). I think it’s for the parents of those 30 somethings (I’m including myself in this 30ish demographic).

This show does shit for women, women in comedy, and women in Hollywood.  But, it does promise our parents that we are loved even if we aren’t married. That our vague professional careers (she is a photographer) are legitimate. That partners with long hair are really nice young men. That our parents’ divorce did affect us, but it didn’t really harm us. Whitney lets parents watch their be-hoodied, belching, whimsical and sloppy ‘untraditional’ kids turn out as conventional and unworrisome as a parent could hope. If your parents watch Two and a Half Men, then I bet they will watch this. And when they do, they will probably talk about you.

This show is going to make it as a generational artifact of what we hope other people are up to.

Yours,

CF

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Bad Teacher: Cameron Diaz as Monster Lite

Bad Teacher is not going to save anybody’s life.  Cameron Diaz as our very bad teacher is mostly a tiny monster. She tells kids they suck, she steals from the school car wash, and she strangely comes up with the idea to rub poison ivy on another teacher’s apple.  And this is extreme stuff for us American audiences. For all the gross-out humor of Bridesmaids, we still don’t like to see our lady protagonists getting ethically nasty.  I think of what the Brit version of Bad Teacher would be and get simultaneously high, and a case of the hives.  It would be rough. A funny, wickeder version of Notes on a Scandal.

At it’s best, Bad Teacher is a takedown of the Teach for America squeak and bounce, with a healthy knock to the mishmash of generic hoopla we expect of the “nurturing” professions.   At one point, Diaz’s Craigslist roommate comes home to find her eating a corn dog. “I thought you were going out with all the other nurses,” he says. “I’m not a nurse,” she says. “I thought you were a nurse.” More of this, please.

The trope of Diaz not nurturing her students ultimately becomes stale. She beats them, she smokes up in the school parking lot, and that was fun, but I was hoping for darker.  I was hoping this would lean more towards Bad Santa, if we were going to be badding up at all.  This might also be because I have been stuffing my eyeballs with Nighty Night lately, which has perhaps fucked up my expectation of what bad truly is. This is also the first movie I have seen with an extended dryhumping scene.

Two key markers are becoming standby shorthand for a lady movie where the ladies are “real people.” The first is that she has to eat something with a high caloric content without glamour or lust. She has to eat in the way that people do when they are alone.  Think Annie and her cupcake in Bridesmaids. In Bad Teacher, Diaz and her cheeseburger get some strange scene time as she drives to seduce a school district wonk.  Is it narratively important that she eats a cheeseburger on her mild drive? No. Is it funny to watch a fit Diaz eat a cheeseburger? If you think eating cheeseburgers are funny.  It was a strange way to spend 4 seconds, but it was so memorable. The earlier mentioned corn dog had a similar effect. I can’t tell if it’s because we’re unused to seeing women blandly eat without it being a large statement (she’s healthy cuz she eats! Cute because she doesn’t hide her appetite!) or so typical (woman laughing alone with salad). Women are either supposed to have orgasms when they eat cupcakes, or cry in the bathroom about it. Here, they just eat, and, you know, drive.

No orgasms, either. The other marker is the very bad sex scene, usually one that is good for the guy and atrocious for the gal.  Again, anything with Annie and John Hamm in Bridesmaids, and Justin Timberlake’s dedicated dryhumpery here.  The joke usually lands on the stupid, offensive, completely selfish things the men say during sex, while the women are slightly winking at the audience as they contort and romp. They’re with us, telepathing “this guy is a real piece of work,” as they wait for him to finally come. Both scenes are used to announce that the dude is not part of the happy ending for our protagonists.  Neither woman tells off the dude or quits the very bad sex even though he is not listening to her, or worse, tells her to stop talking. The good news is the audience aligns with the woman’s experience in the exchange, even if it assumes that putting up with mid-coitus bullshit is normsville. By making fun of the man’s blindness to his partner, we all actually see and listen to the lady character’s experience.

As a tangent, can you imagine this same dynamic for a great sex scene? In both these movies, the good sex is skipped over, either as a fade out or as an untold part of the story. This might be more because bad sex is easy to define, while good sex is ridiculously specific, especially for women, and thus harder to write.  In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where the bad sex was all very funny and very much from a male POV (the woman who kept saying ‘Hi,’ etc.) but the good sex was downright cliche’ (looking into each other’s eyes, meaning). 

The idea of seeing a good sex scene between Diaz and Jason Segel, her other love interest, is a little bit iffy. How do you keep us aligned in the woman’s experience without making it an over the top ode to a woman’s pleasure? And bad sex keeps the story focused on the protagonist, whereas good sex realigns the audience with the couple. And, the nitty gritty of bad sex is funny. The grit of good sex, is just, well, blushy. We already assume women are blushy.  In these movies where the lady protagonists are trying to claim all three dimensions they have to disregard and work against the already well-mapped soft spots of traditional femininity.  Thus, the dryhumping.

As for Bad Teacher, it’s a mildly good excuse to sit in the dark. One thing it does well is skew dialogue into natural conversation. Characters often say the obvious thing, but in a real and unpackaged way. When Diaz gives helpful dating advice that leads to two men hitting on her sidekick (Phyllis from the Office), Segal says “Wow, that worked superfast.” It could be flat, but it twists enough that when he says it, it lands as a real sentence in the world.  Also, Segel and Diaz seem to have a real chemistry, and while the plot gets stupid, and there are lots of loose ends, it doesn’t become a carnival like Spring Breakdown. I think that means we might be getting somewhere.

Yours,

CF

The Leaking Conquest

Dear Millicent,

Hi! Welcome to this new day, one wherein Hollywood and comedians insist they always thought women were funny.  A reviewer on my NPR station said, “I don’t understand what the big deal about  Bridesmaids is. Apatow has always made women the smartest characters in his movies. This time, women are gross. So?” A writer acquaintance who once said “I just don’t write comedy for women,” said with great and serious gusto “Bridesmaids is important for comedy.”

The monsieur I went to see the movie  with was wowed. “It’s so much more than a girl’s comedy,” he said, a huge compliment.  And I hunched over.  I thought of Lindy West. I squinted, trying to think if I would have said the same thing after The Hangover, commending it on being more than a boy’s comedy.  You know the answer.

We are all excited about this movie. I was hoping for this great coming of women in comedy when I saw the trailer, and my fingers are still crossed for the continuation of whatever trend Apatow is building as he also produces Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls.  I will admit, I got cautious when I saw all the emails and tweets about it being a social responsibility to see this movie.  I worried it was a great viral PR scheme…that Apatow had approached women’s comedy as an act of ego, to play all us feminists and prove us wrong about our criticisms of him.  I like the happy idea that he had a great veil-lifting, and realized the flatness of his female characters, and instantly went out to correct the imbalance that he was part of, and a bit of a mascot for.  But I doubt that.  It’s too perfect. Instead, it seems like another time to type out the cliche’ that I use in almost every post about Hollywood: how nice it must be to have cake and eat it too.  It just seems weird that it is a social responsibility to pay money to prove that a female audience exists (already known). Or to show that women would like more from their onscreen representations (already known).  It wasn’t women’s social responsibility to carry this movie, it was dudes’.  Hollywood needs proof that men will show up for a movie where a woman shits her wedding dress.

Interestingly, the previews at my theater before the show did not promise a continuation of this trend.  Instead, there was an all guy remake of 9 to 5, and a male Freaky Friday about marriage and bachelorhood.

But I sound sour, and Bridesmaids did not leave me sour.  It left me….relevant.  I felt seen.  I felt existed.  Doesn’t that sound crazy? That one dumb movie could do that?  But, watching Wiig work through jealousy and general life-shittiness was wonderful.  The way she talked to herself in her car, the way she had a private world (the cupcake!), the fact that a woman was called an “asshole” and it fit, were all minor revelations of what real people do, including that half of the population, us.  We had a movie soaking in the truth that women are as fucked up as men! Life According to Jim for everyone!

Speaking of that diarrhea scene, I immediately thought of Subashini‘s fantastic take on Awkward Women, which aligns with the pre-Bridesmaids rules for Apatow’s women:

Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.

Here we have several leaking, unpregnant, unadorable, unrigid,  challenges.  As Subashini goes onto to say, the awkward woman is usually insane, a chaotic threat to world order (hello Nighty Night!).  So, the fact that our women in Bridesmaids shit and puke over every surface they can find in the interestingly pure and patriarchal setting of a bridal shop, is divine.  I said in a recent post that when we see a woman running in a wedding dress, it’s exciting because we see a woman fighting the system.  Here, it changes. When we see a woman shitting in the street in a wedding dress, my fingers are crossed we see a woman shitting on said system.

I will still argue that Bridesmaids is weak sauce compared to the likes of  Pulling and all the other amazing three-dimensional representations of women that have been in no way celebrated the way this Hollywood approved version of things has been.   Nevertheless, Bridesmaids does stand as a great case for more.  The angle of the jokes whispered how much comedy has been lost by not including women’s real perspectives. Examples:

  • The joke of Helen’s full out gown at the engagement party.  I have never seen a visual gown joke in a dude-normative comedy.  It did so much work so fast, and was visually compelling, as well as instantly funny.
  • A mother of 3 boys says “everything is covered in semen. Once, I cracked a blanket in half.” See, it still the same stuff we’re always laughing about, semen, but this time, it’s about the lady’s encounter with it.  It’s a joke that’s hilarious to everybody, and an observation that has been missing because mom’s never get to talk, usually. How have we not heard that before?  It’s a grand, filthy all-inclusive joke. And, it catches men in the self consciousness of their bodily humors in a rare way (I think of it as the male equivalent to the period blood stain in Superbad).   
  • Moms! Wiig’s mother is not a cartoon, but she is unhelpful and wacky like parents are.  I still think the best mother I’ve ever seen is Louie CK’s mom on Louie, but this mom was another beacon of the fact that I was welcome here.  I recognized that woman.  Same with Maya Rudolph’s dad.  It’s always a sign of life when even the minor characters has full plates of dimension, even if it is short work.
Other commendations:
  • Melissa McCarthy stole the show for me.  And while the audience actually squealed “Ewww” when she showed her leg to her love interest, her character was a direct challenge to that “Eww.”  Yes, they have her run first into the restaurant, and she has the hassle of other cheap jokes, but her character is an amazing foil to Wiig’s.  She is successful, and with an unabashed sexual appetite, and an unabashed sense of self.  When she says “I know you couldn’t guess now, but it was hard for me in high school,” she means it.  She in no way considers herself a victim or another person’s joke. She is winning.   She is a model of self-love, and the appropriate agent to point out Wiig’s sadsackery.  And kudos to the costumers for giving her that pearl necklace (and dear lord, why does that feel filthy to type? It really was made of pearls, and a necklace!).  Initially, I thought the necklace was off-base, suggesting a properness that didn’t fit, but as her character gets established, it tidily proves that her success has been there all along.
  • Irish guy from the IT Crowd. Nicely done.
  • Thank you JESUS for a cast of women with bodies.
  • Jealousy, class, money, and the tensions of friendship! Such rich stuff! So immediately connective!
  • That the ultimate “perfect wedding” is still super tacky (lasers! waterfalls! Tim Heidecker!), because weddings are unavoidably so, in one way or another.
My last notes are about nostalgia, which might be our current trend in comedy, and one that I fall for every time.  You bring on Wilson Phillips, and you got me.  And, while I charge Your Highness et al with a great romance for scripts of masculinity from the past, I charge Bridesmaids with enjoying the same, but ladystyle.  Because, when you get right down to it, Bridesmaids is 16 Candles, down to the pink bridesmaids dress, and the love interest (JAKE!), leaning on the car outside of the church.  And, there’s cake.
What did you think, dearest? Is this a moment? A start? An echo that has the power to make a boom?
Yours,
CF

A Female Moment?

Dear Millicent,

The world is falling apart. But, I have some frivolous and cheering news. I think we might be in for a bit of a female moment, coming soon, to movie theaters near us.

I say this because, yesterday, I went to go see the new Simon Pegg Nick Frost genre bender, Paul. It was fine. Fine-ish. I will forget it all by next Thursday. BUT, the previews that aired before this dude-heavy sci-fi comedy movie were kind of like some of my wildest dreams coming true. Every movie previewed had a female lead. There was not a princess, a hooker, or a mother…shit, there was a princess, but she was schooling her menfolk. The women were often kicking ass and taking names. And, doing despicable, unattractive things.  The theaters are going to be populated, come April and May, with actual three-dimensional womens. (Possibly, if one is to believe the promises of one set of movie trailers).  I think  we can look theaterward and see,  rare but real, a constellation of sloppy janes, women heroes, and a supreme passing of the Bechdel test.  An optimistic outlook for sure, but I am so used to cursing the movie industry as I sit in a theater, that I was caught a bit off guard to see every movie presented have a woman allowed as many dimensions as the men. I doubt this moment will last. It might be a like a comet. But, also, proof that Hollywood can actually do this thing that it has insisted on ignoring since like, forever.

First up was Hanna:

We have Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchette, Focus Features, antler rifle practice, female friendship, and a dad not knowing how to prepare his daughter for the battles she’s got to face.  I love assassin movies that get to the marrow (my favorite movie, possibly ever is La Femme Nikita), and am hoping Hanna does it. It reminds me of Run Lola Run. Here’s hoping.

Next, Bridesmaids:

The first time I saw the trailer, I thought, compared to everything on British television, this is all too little too late. I was worried that this movie might boil down to what men think women do that is funny. And it might be. I have a feeling it had a thousand rewrites, even though it kept Wiig’s fine name on it. And that may be what needs to happen to get anything out of this stature and oomph, because this thing is getting the full Apatow big movie treatment.  It’s the big honcha–getting the chance that the likes of Spring Breakdown never had. We might have a eyeful of the awkward woman, showing us how expansive and devastating (the good way) comedy can be when we let women in. Or, it might be The Hangover sent to the cleaners, and back with a box of tampons and some lesbian jokes. My aim is that this movie pushes things forward.  That’s all I ask, Apatow.  Keep the Wiig gold.

Then, Your Highness:

Yes, it’s about two brothers, but it is NaPo herself that lends the effort a sense of…establishment? Yes, the trailer includes a shot of her stripping down to a leather thong, but it also shows her legitimately being a better “quester” then her male cohort.  The movie is banking on inverting the prince charming trope, and playing with all of its accessories. This, and dick and pot jokes.  But, she gets to make a lot of them, and is never rescued, but does indeed rescue.

Next up: Bad Teacher

Or what I like to call, Sloppy Jane extraordinaire. She doesn’t like kids, she wants things that are bad for her, unapologetically. I am excited about this because here we have an unattractive female protagonist (at least morally, if not physically), where the joke is that she is an asshole. I can’t think of the last morally unattractive female lead along the lines of Tracy Flick in a long time.  Diaz might be able to do here what was attempted in The Sweetest Thing, and hope this will reward for her long suffering in The Green Hornet. I am also trying to forget that Justin Timberlake has anything to do with this.

And last, Arthur.

My fingers are crossed that while this movie wants to be Russell Brand heavy, the women will sweep the show. Replacing key male roles from the original with female leads (Mirren as the new Gielgud), and surrounding Brand with a nanny, a fiance, a mother, and manic pixie (maybe authenticized, because, after all, they chose Greta Gerwig and not Minka Kelly), along with the fact that Brand can’t really carry a movie on his own (Get Him to the Greek) but fabulously supports others (Sarah Marshall), I think we might have a good recipe for a good time. Or, this will be about women telling men what to do. It’s a gamble, especially since they have removed all the alcoholism from the original 1981 script. Why can’t we have fun drunks anymore? Can you imagine The Thin Man without all  the codependent drinking?

So, in all, we have an action movie, Apatow with ladies, a stoner comedy castle quest, a rom-com that offers nothing sweet, and a remake updated and upfemmed.   This spring might be a heavy moment. Or, this might be a skewed representation, pulled from the inadequate sample of one set of previews that were shown before a movie that relied heavily on jokes about an alien’s balls.

Fingers warily crossed,

CF

 

 

 

Sloppy Jane

Dear Millicent,

Because the Nu woman is such a hard label to talk around (I say it out loud and it seems to mean nothing), I am renaming her the Sloppy Jane. No, the Sloppy Jane is not a new sexual position, but it is still for the advanced.  The Sloppy Jane is that rare female protagonist who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.

And, as we have talked about before, the Brits are really good at writing Sloppy Janes, and the Americans aren’t. I would even argue that the Brits are so good at it that they have created an overdose of the Sloppy Jane.  Julia Davis’ Nighty Night was recommended to me by commenters here, and I crown Davis The Uber Jane. She is one of the most, perhaps the most, uncomfortable and unlikeable women I have ever seen take on television. She finds a panty liner in shrimp salad that she is serving to guests at dinner, and simply picks it out before serving more.  Her dog poops on her kitchen floor, and she blames the turds on her wheelchair bound nemesis. She is as over the top as a classic Sloppy Joe, David Brent for example, but she is much much harder to excuse.

In 2004, The Guardian, in an article title “The Witches” wondered if Davis had changed sitcoms forever:

It wasn’t until Absolutely Fabulous unleashed upon the world Edina and Patsy – especially Patsy – that we really had a proper introduction to women behaving badly.

Yet no one is a patch on Jill. In evolutionary terms, she is a huge leap forward, a feat of genetic engineering. The Office might have popularised the comedy of embarrassment, but Nighty Night has moved it on. The monstrous woman has arrived. Best be nice to her.

Also of interest, several female comedians are asked their take on Davis’ character “Jill”, and several reference the impossibility of an unlikeable protagonist until Gervais’ The Office. The article is a fun read, especially for Catherine Tate’s take on unattractive characters in comedy:

Apart from Friends, comedy is rarely glamorous. You’ve got to compromise your dignity in some way for it to work and what’s nice about grotesque characters is that they display a lack of vanity. I think women now are not frightened to appear unattractive, as unpleasant characters. Characters work best when they’re a mixture of recognition and exaggeration and the funnier you can look within the realms of naturalism, the better. It’s through the mouths of these grotesques that you can get away with things you couldn’t otherwise. I do a character of an old woman who says things that, on a script in black and white, would be unacceptable. That these characters don’t believe they’re wrong is what makes it funny while taking the edge off the offence.

But that article was in 2004. Nighty Night went off the air in 2005 (though Darren Star is/was producing a US version). What monstrous Sloppy Janes are still out there, especially on this side of the pond?

Here’s my working list, with high hopes to add more. They range from empathetic three-dimensionality, to intense grotesqueries of heart and spirit.

  1. Toni Collette, United States of Tara
  2. Alexandra Goodworth, Head Case (a Netflix wonder)
  3. Lisa Kudrow, in most roles she takes
  4. Felicia Day, The Guild
  5. Jennifer Anniston, Management (and I could be argued out of this one)

Who else do we need to crown Ms. Sloppy Jane USA?

Yours,

CF