Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) initially seems like a materialistic, vapid sorority girl, and the film’s premise is that she uncovers her inner geek. But a careful watching of the film reveals that Elle was always more empowered and feminist than we give her credit for. Elle’s lack of support is apparent: her advisor mocks her, her parents find her only worthy for her appearance (“law school is for people who are boring and ugly”), and her sorority sisters are so vapid and self-absorbed that when Elle calls, hurting from the insults of her new classmates, they immediately change the subject to themselves.
First, there’s that Warner (Matthew Davis), her boyfriend, diminishes her as a hot piece of ass when she wants more to their relationship. He wants someone “serious,” saying she’s not a Vanderbilt, while ignoring her own academic achievements that are later revealed. Classist much?
Elle falls for the idea that she needs to join the Ivy League to be desirable, but she has the academic chops to get in, albeit with a tad of diversity motivation on the hiring committee. Hey, we already know that your major doesn’t really matter.
The other female characters are entirely concerned with themselves or the attentions of men. Vivian (Selma Blair), Warner’s new girlfriend, is so threatened by Elle that she continually humiliates her and attempts to control Warner’s access to Elle (and Warner is quick to hit on Elle while Vivian is in another room) yet complains that Elle is “horrible,” even after Elle has offered compliments and food to her.
The problem is the token “feminist” character, a 2-D lesbian activist named Enid, who continually dismisses Elle based on her appearance and makes the lamest argument for patriarchal language ever. Thankfully, Enid is so mocked by the script that she’s clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and she never uses the word “feminist,” so we’ll call that a win.
Although Elle decides to attend Harvard in order to get her ex back, she dedicates herself to her schoolwork, studying even while trying to seduce. It is at the moment when Elle realizes aloud, “I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?” that she commits herself fully to her studies, with apparently no hope of getting Warner back.
Her confidence is unshakable: she ignores those gaping when she arrives at Harvard, refuses to let her Playboy-bunny costume embarrass her, and responds to Warner’s comment that she is “not smart enough” with righteous anger.
It is this confidence that empowers Elle to continue her daily life even in places where others declare she has no place. When Elle arrives with goodies for Warner’s study group, two female classmates tell her she is not smart enough and should go back to the sorority. Elle responds not with ad hominem attacks but simply the facts, ma’am.
It is when her mentor turns on her that Elle nearly loses faith. This is a moment in many feminists’ lives, when they feel that the patriarchal system reducing women to objects is too much to overcome. And yet she does.
And of course, Elle destroys Warner’s in-class argument that a man harassing a couple who conceived from his sperm donation cannot be held as a stalker, and skewers the principle that sperm has such primacy that it has legal standing for parental rights. *slow clap*
Perhaps the most feminist of the Farrelly Brothers’ offerings, Shallow Hal includes a vaguely supernatural and definitely philosophical plot in which the womanizer Hal (Jack Black) is hypnotized by Tony Robbins (yes, really) in order to see only the beauty within people, while his friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) loses his mind over his friend’s apparent delusion. Oddly, the hypnotism also means that people’s personalities are reflected in their outward appearance (and thus even hot girls and guys with horrible personalities are portrayed as hideous and old in Hal’s eyes). The problem is that film definitely exploits fatphobia as Hal’s ignorance of Rosemary’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) actual appearance leads to humorous scenes in which he adoringly describes her as a “fox” while others see only an overweight woman.
And yet the film succeeds in overwhelmingly condemning womanizing behavior and unrealistic body expectations for women, as it slyly uses good looks as a proxy for good character while uncomfortably highlighting the reality: looks don’t matter. As viewers fall for one “fox” after another, while faced with the unfortunate sight of Jack Black and Jason Alexander, the movie plays its own mind trick on the viewer: How normalized have we become to accept mediocre-looking men being “able” to date insanely hot women, while mediocre-looking women are regularly mocked, in pop culture? This movie makes us question our own biases in judging the appropriateness of couples for each other, and when Hal recognizes the real Rosemary, many audience members will balk at his love for a fat woman, then immediately feel guilty for that thought. And that in and of itself is a powerful effect of this film.
In addition, the transformation experienced by Mauricio who, in a discussion with Tony Robbins about perception and reality, begins to overcome his misogyny, and Hal’s realization that he loves Rosemary no matter what her appearance, make this movie a charmer. In this film, Tony Robbins is capable of empowering people to change their perception and thus their reality, enabling Hal to fall in love and Mauricio to accept his own twisted secret (pun intended).
Scream is a total send-up of the slasher genre’s tendency to have big-breasted, sex-having women be brutally murdered. The main character, Sidney (Neve Campbell), is decidedly tough even though she screams a lot. She’s on an Ellen Ripley-level of badass, yet she cries in a way that implies weakness. If one really looks at Sidney, thought, that illusion quickly fades. Sidney is simply reacting in a human way, while Ripley is disingenuously cool. Ripley is aloof, almost superhuman…Sidney is the girl next door for whom your heart breaks.
In many ways, Scream seems problematic: the killers are slut-shaming psychopaths while secondary female characters regularly fall into gender-based death traps. But at least Scream is gender-equal in its deaths: stupid or not, characters find themselves targeted by the killer, who always is motivated by some sort of gender issue, whether its jealousy of a female relative or attempted revenge for an affair. It’s almost as if sexist and violent people are the bane of society’s existence!
When the killers reveal their motive, it always surrounds some feeling of inadequacy they felt in modern society, as though they simply couldn’t keep up with the times. Namely, they were threatened by someone who purportedly holds little power in society: a young woman. Sidney’s power lies in her agency: she retains a choice and she often chooses the hard option, making Sidney a much more compelling “scream queen” than Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, whose much-lauded role in Halloween features mostly scream, no substance.
Scream offers a world in which women’s agency might get them into trouble, yet offers them a power through which they might overcome evil. If that isn’t a feminist reflection upon our current society, I don’t know what is.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series!