A sidestep into film this week, because I promised Feminéma I would make my case.
Sometimes a film is too stylish for its own good. It saddened me greatly how little appreciation the 2003 movie Down With Love got from audiences and critics. Perhaps, coming a few years before the Mad Men phenomenon made the 60s hip again, it simply missed its moment. Perhaps it was so very elaborately designed and pretty that people assumed it didn’t have anything to say. It was certainly promoted as Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor ‘doing’ Doris Day and Rock Hudson, with little mention that they were actually doing a whole lot more.
The key to deciding whether a movie is supporting or subverting the status quo is to examine not just who in the story has agency, but whether a person’s agency is endorsed by the narrative or implicitly criticised or framed as a perversion of the rightful order of things. In this case, when the female characters are successful, things don’t fall apart, they go better. And when a man underestimates a woman she takes a flying leap right over the top of him.
Sexism itself is presented as unattractive: early in the movie, in a moment when editor Vikki is manipulated into making the coffee by her male colleagues, the kind of complacent advantage that men had in the work environment in this period is shown to be unearned, undeserved and deeply unpleasant. Then, as Barbara’s book frees women from concern for the opinions of men, all the clichés about male and female behaviour are shown to stem from this same unjust power structure. Remove it, and no one continues to want what they have always been told they did: predatory sex for men, marriage and a white picket fence for women. As Peter rants to ex-Casanova Catcher Block, “It’s because of this they’re all behaving like you!” As soon as women get full agency in their lives, the edifice of male superiority crumbles, and the men have the choice to either play as equals, or pack up and go home.
The problem with many romantic comedies is that their progress rests on an unfair advantage bestowed on the man. Anna Smith points out in “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?” that the noticeable fallout of a plot that rests on the man having a secret ability or additional knowledge is that the woman in these romantic pairings is put at a disadvantage that weakens the interest in their exchanges. It was Helen Hunt’s disadvantage against a mind-reading Mel Gibson, for example, that killed What Women Want stone dead. In movies like Pillow Talk (the film to which Down With Love is usually compared) the heroine is given a chance to get back at the trickster man, but only after she has initially been his dupe. The crucial difference with Down With Love is that the twist is when we find out she wasn’t taken in at all. This is fundamentally different from “deathbed confession cinema”, in which a movie uses offensive clichés to get laughs all the way through, with five minutes of contrition at the end. It shows us that we were wrong to assume that a story about a cute, blonde woman requires her to be wrong about her own life. Then it resolves not with another deception or act of ego from the hero, but an act of honesty.
When a movie is playing on a genre from an earlier era it raises the satire-or-homage question, but we can be too quick to assume the only options are for it to be sincere or parodic. Usually the audience will need to decide whether a movie like this is making fun of the genre it emulates, or whether it is enjoying it too much to critique its weaknesses. I think the catch here is that neither is quite what Down With Love is doing. Rather, the people making this movie genuinely love the originals, but think they can improve on their fundamental structure by excising the sexism at the core.
In truth, the real joy of this movie is created by the leads’ respective sidekicks. Vikki (Sarah Paulson) and Peter (David Hyde Pierce), attempting to negotiate a romance of their own, are actually the ones who demonstrate how useless and inhibiting the stereotypes associated with what men and women should want and be really are. Vikki loves her work, but almost gives it up because she is fooled into thinking that she can’t do it in a world run by men. Peter just wants a relationship, but keeps being told by society that he is supposed to seduce a resisting woman, not have a free-flowing liaison with an enthusiastic one (“It makes me feel so used. It’s just not right! I shouldn’t feel used, she should!”). It is also these two who really shine when banter is called for.
Yes, the whole thing is crashingly heteronormative, there is no hint that the woman exists who doesn’t fall in love with men, and precisely two throwaway jokes suggesting that one man might desire another. It is a problem when working to a genre that to move too far outside its conventions will break the contract with the audience. It is also true that Barbara Novak’s radical new book, as it is described, couldn’t possibly have the effect on society it is supposed to. If we could cure inequality by eating chocolate, we all would have given it our best shot years ago. It doesn’t matter, though: Barbara’s book operates within this genre in the same way as the traditional sci-fi movie is often based on a crucial but outlandish premise; we accept it in order to see the “what if?” play out.
In the end, Down With Love succeeds through giving Barbara and Vikki its approval for their challenges to the status quo. It turns out we are not being told that our heroine was a fool to think she could beat the system, be successful and do without love. Neither are we being told that she was wrong to suggest that the way men and women behave sexually depends most on how much autonomy society permits them. It’s true that, much like that other delivery system for sexual banter, Much Ado About Nothing, the story doesn’t challenge the idea that people function best in couples. But it makes it clear that it’s better to be with no one than with someone who doesn’t want you to be all you can be. We are shown that both the man and woman are at their smartest when they hold out for the chance of a relationship between equals.