We ask for more movies starring women (that aren’t just love stories or romantic comedies). Hollywood complies. You think this would make people a little bit happier about the terrible state of Hollywood now. But no, it doesn’t. Three recent films starring women that made hardcore cheddar at the box office (which generally means more movies like this will get made) got thrashed by critics. In all three cases I was warned by people I follow on Twitter to stay away from these BAD movies. Maleficent, not good enough. The next film was Tammy, starring Melissa McCarthy. This wasn’t just ejected from the cool kids room like Maleficent but it was panned across the board. Those reviews eventually turned into pleas to help Melissa McCarthy save her career!
And now comes Lucy. “It was a bad movie,” said one person to me on Twitter. “Bad” is a club now. Did you know? You only have to agree with the status quo on Twitter and you too can be one of the tribe. I’m supposed to take this person’s word of it because….?
Bigger question: How do we even start to talk about good and bad with the kind of shitstream that is coming out of Hollywood now?
Now, sure, all of that nonsense Christopher Orr at the Atlantic was spewing to myth-bust the myth about how we only use 10% of our brains — as though he were reviewing a PBS Nature program or a scholarly treatise in Scientific American. If you want reality, however, look out the fucking window. It’s all around you all the time. We go to the movies not for reality — but sometimes for fantasy. And I can tell you, as a woman this was a delirious fantasy — not so much because she did all of those things in the movie but because she GOT TO DO all of those things in the movie. The mere choice to put a woman in that part was a sheer and utter revelation of the kind that Just. Doesn’t. Happen. Anymore. In America.
I sat there with my 16-year-old daughter through the trailers that were, I’m not kidding, 90% male-driven. There was Fury — starring all men. There was The Judge, starring all men (with one or two “supporting” females). There was some secret service movie with Colin Firth. Finally we get to a film for women and it’s 50 Shades of Fucking Grey. Really Hollywood? I was embarrassed that this was the sorry-ass state of things on MY WATCH in the presence of my very intelligent daughter who has a whole life ahead of her to navigate as a woman. Where are the stories starring women? They are nowhere. So naturally, she and I were giddy with joy watching Scarlett Johansson evolve suddenly into a super-being with extraordinary powers of perception.
Tammy and Maleficent are two films that star women who aren’t supporting characters and they aren’t sex objects and they aren’t the one who helps the dude save the world. They are actual people and the plot turns on their internal struggles. The stories are ABOUT THEM. Maybe you have to be an old-timer to really understand how dramatically things have shifted in Hollywood. Maybe if you’re young you don’t realize how tragic it all has become. Online misogyny is the default. Whole generations of young women are buying the misinformation by that misogynist culture and claiming they aren’t feminists because feminists are BAD. We are cycling backwards, away from women’s rights and towards something that doesn’t look like the world I grew up in. When I was a young girl I was growing up under the protective umbrella of feminism. Women like Faye Dunaway, Sissy Spacek, Jane Fonda and Ellen Burstyn ruled the box office. Movies were built around them the way they had been for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyk. But now? We have Jennifer Lawrence movies. But we also have Angelina Jolie and Melissa McCarthy and Scarlett Johansson.
So would you think for one minute that I would ever undervalue my voice as a “film critic” to trash these movies because they weren’t perfect? Do you think I would ever care what some 20- or 30-something male had to tell me about whether these movies are good? Do you actually think I have time for shit like that? Ain’t got NO time for that, not when films made BY women are as rare as films STARRING women. Not when a movie like Tammy gets made at all. Not when Luc Besson casts Scarlett Johansson as Lucy. And not when Maleficent has become a worldwide phenomenon at the box office.
Films starring women (that aren’t love stories or romantic comedies or any story that revolves around a man) need to start making shitloads, boatloads, giant wads of cold hard cash at the box office which Maleficent and Lucy are now doing. Tammy, it should be said, isn’t a bomb either. It’s made money. (In only 4 weeks it’s earned 4 times what it cost.) It just didn’t zoom to $100 million. When the money starts to rain down, things will start to shift. I hope it happens soon because Hollywood is coming close to losing whole generations of young women who know they deserve better than spending their money to watch the inner flower of every male character in American film bloom on screen.
What I see, if you want to know the truth, is a branded culture. We are so locked into that which is familiar that we can’t roll with anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm. This is why there are only five fast food places to choose from at any given roadside town up and down the highways of this country. Americans like fewer choices, bigger and more identifiable brands. Why do you think everything we see is a sequel or a remake? People afraid to try something new stick with brands that are familiar. They like what’s safely repeatable.
Lucy is a movie that doesn’t follow any brand. It isn’t a remake and it toys with our perception of what a sci-fi/action movie starring a woman should be. Lucy took it a step further, of course, because in Lucy Besson made the specific connection of the maternal force — which, anyone who has studied human evolution knows that it’s the female, not the male, who is the favored of the sexes. Women burn fat more slowly so they can survive longer. Women live longer. Women give birth to babies. What I love about Lucy is that it posits the notion that a woman can do anything if she finds the key to unlock her inherent brain power.
Lucy, for all of the panning the critics did, has some really wonderful metaphors going on — especially about human intelligence where women are concerned. The last thing we get credit for is our intelligence, believe me. Yet Luc Besson took it upon himself to make (yet another) film that revolved around the intelligence of a female character in a role that would ordinarily be given to a man. Notice how the critics did not attack Gravity? Yeah, that’s because in Gravity the woman’s internal world was something EVERYONE is already familiar with: maternal love, a desire to live. There is nothing challenging about that, nothing subversive, nothing out of the ordinary. But in Lucy? And in Maleficent? And even Tammy (the haters can fuck off, I said) these are characters we hardly ever, if ever, see on screen.
I understand it’s the film critics job to objectively and subjectively write up a film. I don’t understand a film critic advocating against people seeing a movie, as Amy Nicholson is doing over at the LA Weekly. I don’t understand the little tribes of people online who form teams for or against a movie, because I’m immediately suspicious of any tribe that tells me what I should think about anything, let alone a movie. I’m also suspicious of any tribe that doesn’t get the bigger picture about women in film, women in Hollywood and women overall. But most of all, I’m suspicious of anyone who lets anyone else do their thinking for them.
I have also lived what I hope is half my life. I’ve watched critics and the cool kids hate on a movie only to see that movie gain in esteem over the years (The Big Lebowski, for instance). I’ve seen movies take on a life of their own completely outside the world of film critics who then must unscramble their notions of what defines a great movie. I can tell you, when Vertigo was first released, no one imagined it would one day be named as the best film ever made. Its two Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Sound tell you all you need to know about that. So how can we be so sure our snap judgments today are right?
Lucy asks us to question that which we see with our own eyes. While the “science” (oh please lecture me some more on science, Christopher Orr) might not be what’s in our text books or what we all have agreed is true, it makes the bigger point that we have absolutely no fucking clue what expanded or evolved intelligence is. We have no clue. What we do know is that what we see with our eyes is a constructed, simplified illusion of that which we can understand. We have dumbed ourselves down so that we don’t become overwhelmed. That part of is true.
Did you know, for instance, that apes only saw a limited number of colors early on in their evolution? The apes from whom we descended passed down a gene that allowed them to see a wide array of color so that we could find food better. Survival equals offspring equals evolved traits. So how do we even know the colors we are seeing are all of the colors? We only can see what our biology has determined we need to see. The spectrum of what is really out there? We have no idea.
Instead of this kind of expanded conversation, we get the same gobbledegook from the critics we must must endure each time a film that tries something risky comes out. Sure, sometimes the critics can roll with new ideas — but most of the time they want the screenplay to “work.” They want the three-act structure and the conflict and resolution to all work together in the manner that, to them, defines a good movie. Funny part is, how do they really know? Trust me, they don’t. No one really does. Time smooths out the wrinkles and good becomes great. Bad becomes good and the colors eventually reveal themselves.
But really, don’t mind me. The movie’s dumb? Okay, the movie’s dumb. Skip this dumb movie and you’ll miss a chance to decide for yourself. Skip Lucy and you’ll never know what you missed.