AWFJ Women On Film – The Week in Women, July 24, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Judd Apatow doesn’t know what sexism is, Katherine Heigl doesn’t know what grownup is, and Orphan knows that women deserve only punishment. It’s fun!

HEY, WOMEN ARE HUMAN TOO. As misogynist and boy-centered as science fiction and other geekery can often be, it’s also true that the strongest, most potent, most feminist characters in pop culture have tended to spring from that genre… and that the supposedly uber-male fans of the genre are perfectly happy to embrace such characters. And often those characters are feminist because they are people first, as Sigourney Weaver so deftly explained at this weekend’s San Diego Comic Con (reported at the Guardian’s TV & Radio Blog:

Science fiction is an investigation into what it is to be human. A lot of the roles I have played, they’re not trying to create a female action figure — they’re trying to create a fully functioning human being; a character comes first.

I was playing a person [in Alien’s Ripley]: people want things, believe in things.

More gender-blind characters like Ripley are far from impossible… but they’re also far from common. There have been far too few in the 30 years since Alien.

JUDD APATOW KINDA DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT SEXISM IS. Movieline reports on a Q&A with the Funny People writer-director after a screening of the film, in which he appears not to understand what people mean when they accuse him of sexism:

There are always a few people who don’t get it at all. They’re like, “Katherine Heigl should have had an abortion [in Knocked Up]!” I’m like, “What? Really? But then what would I do? That would have happened at minute eight, and then what happens?”

See, the problem with Knocked Up isn’t that the Heigl character didn’t have an abortion — of course we understand that if she had, there’d be no movie. The problem is that she doesn’t even appear to consider it, not at all: she doesn’t know she’s in a movie that considers it a foregone conclusion that she must have this baby. Oh, and also that it seems she’s never been to a gynecologist before. Oh, and also that she’d have to be a complete fucking retro-1950s moron to think that having a baby with the juvenile idiot that Seth Rogen plays would be a good idea. Oh, and also that the entire movie is pretty much solely from the juvenile idiot’s perspective, as if accidentally getting pregnant were all his problem, down to the way the film was marketed, with Rogen’s chagrinned mug filling the posters and the DVD covers. Is he “knocked up”? Why, yes, he is: the female vessel currently harboring his seed is superfluous and beside the point.

Does Apatow stop there? Of course not:

I think, really, what a lot of these issues are is that women are romanticized in movies. [My] movies go pretty hard at having women have as many problems as men. They make mistakes that are as big as men’s. So when someone says Knocked Up seems sexist, I’m like, “Really?” I mean, Seth [Rogen] has an earthquake, and he grabs his bong before his pregnant girlfriend. That’s pretty bad. But I try to weigh it evenly so it’s not really about men or women; it’s just about miscommunications and us at our worst. Because people at their best I don’t really want to watch in entertainment. I don’t really want to watch mature people or smart people or people who do the right thing. I like to meet them in life, but I don’t find them entertaining. And certainly not funny. So I feel like the worse people are, the more amusing [it is] and the more I root for them to figure their shit out.

So, Apatow appears to believe that, say, Heigl’s Knocked Up character isn’t romanticized, even though she nobly decides to have a child with a man she doesn’t know because… why? We have no idea. Does she have a moral objection to abortion? We don’t know, because we are not even privy to the thought process that culminates in her decision to have the baby.

But wait: Is Apatow suggesting that feminists (of either gender) cannot be bad people, or confused people, or messed up people worth telling funny stories about? Is he suggesting the feminists are incapable of miscommunication? Should we perhaps take Apatow’s confusion as a compliment, that he believes that the only people who have their shit together, who are smart and mature, are feminists?

No: that’s just another kind of pedestal that female feminists, at least, don’t need to be on. (And plenty women know that plenty feminist men are perfectly fucked up in other ways that don’t involve them being sexist pigs.)

It seems merely that, for a successful teller of stories, Apatow has a remarkably limited imagination when it comes to the scope of human experience.

I DON’T THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT SHE THINKS IT MEANS. Speaking of Heigl, she reveals to the Toronto Sun, in connection with The Ugly Truth what she thinks makes a movie “grownup”:

I feel like I’m a 30-year-old woman, and as much as I love those younger audiences, and those kind of movies, and I loved 27 Dresses, I still feel like I want to tell a real story to people my age. And we throw f— around a lot.

It’s not that I always want to do R-rated movies, or that they are the most honest movies out there. But there’s something about the ability to be crass, the ability to drop the F-bomb on occasion, the ability to say cock. That, you know, felt real to me, like the world I live in with my friends.

Fuck cock fuck cock fuck cock fuck cock.

There. I feel so much more grownup now.

This actually makes The Ugly Truth somewhat more sensible to me now. To my grownup eyes and ears, the film — which was, shockingly, written by three women, Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz, and Kirsten Smith — looks like one of the most disgustingly antifeminsts artifacts I’ve seen in ages. Heigl’s Abby, a TV producer, is an annoying, petulant, anal child, supposedly competent at her job (though all the men she works with, even those she supposedly outranks, treat her with contempt) but a huge disaster in her personal life, a sad, lonely, desperate figure… you know, just like all the manly men promised us feminism would make us! And then, after she is completely humiliated by and emotionally dependent upon Gerard Butler’s proud, happy, well-adjusted sexist pig, only then he is ready to deign to fall in love with her and save her from her pathetic hopelessness.

But if Heigl thinks all it takes for a movie to be “grownup” is a few swear words… well, I see now how she could have agreed to go along with this.

OPENING THIS WEEK. As if The Ugly Truth weren’t horrid enough, we also have Orphan, in which poor Vera Farmiga is forced to portray a really bad mother who get punished for her appalling dereliction of her maternal duties when her newly adopted child — also, notably, female — turns out to be the incarnation of psychotic evil. CCH Pounder’s kindly nun learns lessons about the wages of femaleness too. Honestly, if Orphan is to be believed, there’s nothing a woman can do, no path in life that can be taken, that doesn’t lead to madness or punishment.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).