AWFJ Women on Film – The Week in Women, July 31, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Old women are old, even when they’re not; sexism and the female film critic; how to be a misogyny consultant, and

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK. Variety this week reported that Charlize Theron — who has in recent years turned into one of the most slyly feminist major stars with complex roles in movies such as In the Valley of Elah, Monster, and North Country — will be producing and starring in a movie with major feminist cred:

Theron’s Denver and Delilah Films has acquired screen rights to Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel “Florence of Arabia.” Theron will produce and develop the film as a star vehicle….

“Florence of Arabia” is about a State Dept. employee (to be played by Theron) who, after watching her friend marry the prince of a Middle East country and subsequently get executed, fights for equal rights for the women of that country.

Nice.

But for every project like that, it seems there’s always more than one like this (also reported by Variety):

Jennifer Aniston will topline CBS Films’ romantic comedy “Pumas.”

Wayne McClammy’s attached to direct from Melissa Stack’s script. Story centers on two thirtysomething women who make a habit of romancing younger men and take a French skiing vacation that challenges their romantic expectations.

Can you imagine any movie featuring thirtysomething men even bothering to qualify their romantic prospects as “younger,” even if those women were only 19 or 20 years old? It simply would not happen. But for Jennifer Aniston (who is actually 40 years old, the hideous hag) to enjoy the same age difference in her lovers not only demands that she be labeled “older,” it’s actually considered the basis for a romantic comedy!

I know plenty of women who have romanced and even married men younger — sometimes much younger — than they are. And no one involved seems to consider such a relationship odd or strange or worth commenting on particular. But the argument that I always get when I complain that older men/younger women relationships are depicted by Hollywood as typical and ordinary while older women/younger men are treated like some sort of bizarre anomaly is this: “Hey, that’s just the way it is. It’s just plain basic human biology.”

But it isn’t. Older women with younger men is not at all out of the ordinary. But you’d never, ever know that from the way that Hollywood treats them.

SEXISM AND THE FEMALE FILM CRITIC. Dennis Cozzalio of the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule this week interviewed Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek. It’s a long interview, and a fascinating one, and only briefly touches on the sexism that Zacharek encounters as a part of her work in a field that is dominated by men. I find that totally refreshing — because I know that as a film critic myself, I would much rather talk about movies than about sexism, however prevalent it may be — but I will pull out that one instance:

Charlie [film critic Charles Taylor, to whom Zacharek is married] and I share a sensibility. We often tend to like the same things, even though we often don’t like them for the same reasons. That’s one thing that has sometimes been kind of difficult during the course of our relationship and our professional lives. You always hear, “Oh, they always like the same things. Their 10-best lists are always identical.” And often I feel it’s a kind of sexist way of reacting, like saying I can’t think for myself, I take my cues from him—that always seems to be the subtext, and don’t even get me started on that.

The “don’t even get me started” suggests that Zacharek would have a lot of tales about the sexism female film critics face.

MISOGYNY CONSULTANT? REALLY? Lars von Trier’s new film, Antichrist, has been raising howls of objections in the British press for its apparent anti-woman attitudes: it features, for instance, a scene in which a woman cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. (The film is slated to open in the U.S. in October, though von Trier has suggested that the most graphic moments may be edited for some markets.

Now, we learn that von Trier employed a “misogyny consultant” on the film… via an essay in the Independent written by that consultant, Heidi Laura. What’s more, the article reveals that she wasn’t brought onboard in order to lessen any misogyny but in order to heighten it!

It’s not what it sounds like, however:

Could you write a sustained argument on the evil nature of woman, based on all available Western sources? This was Lars von Trier’s proposition to me, a journalist and former university researcher in cultural history. It was July 2007, he was about to finish the manuscript for his film Antichrist, and he needed me to go through as much material as I could and come up with all the facets of misogyny.

The indictment against women I composed for Von Trier sums up the many misogynistic views all the way back to Aristotle, whose observations of nature led him to conclude that “the female is a mutilated male”. Should we avoid staring into that abyss or should we acknowledge this male anxiety, perhaps even note with satisfaction that women are mostly described as very powerful beings by these anxious men?

All this suggests that the movie itself is an indictment of male fear of women, not merely an example of it. I guess we in America will find out in October… if we don’t get an edited version of the film, that is…

BACKHANDED COMPLMENTS. The Hollywood Reporter celebrates Meryl Streep as a “bankable franchise”:

A partial list of this summer’s best boxoffice bets: Optimus Prime, Manny the Woolly Mammoth and Meryl Streep.

It’s understandable if that prompts the reading equivalent of a double-take, but despite turning 60 in June, the actress most synonymous with Oscar quietly has become one of the most reliable warm-weather draws at the multiplex. Streep drummed up nearly $1 billion in worldwide revenue from her previous two summer outings: Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada” in 2006 and Universal’s “Mamma Mia!” in 2008.

She puts that streak on the line next weekend when Columbia’s “Julie & Julia” opens opposite Paramount’s testosterone fest “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”

Oh, but they can’t ever leave well enough alone, can they?

The female-and-food pic, tracking to open in the $20 million range domestically with older females driving interest, could solidify her status as the industry’s only character actress who, in the right vehicle, can carry a midbudget movie to blockbuster status.

With movie-star reliability continuing to buckle and such younger male actors as Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Jack Black recently receiving the back of the hand from audiences, Streep’s success in nontraditional summer fare is delicious indeed.

Will Ferrell and Jack Black are “movie stars,” but Meryl Streep is merely a “character actress” whose “nontraditional” movies happen to make a lot of movie?

They can’t admit that their ideas about what makes a movie star or a tradition might be wrong, can they?

FOX WON’T TOUCH FAMILY GUY ABORTION EPISODE. Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane revealed at Comic Con last weekend that although he’s got an “abortion episode” of the cartoon series ready to roll, it’s likely that Fox won’t air it:

MacFarlane revealed he’s producing a controversial episode about abortion for the upcoming season. But he and others on the panel said that Fox was unlikely to air the episode.

“20th Century Fox, as always, allowed us to produce the episode and then said, ‘You know what? We’re scared to f–king death of this,'” MacFarlane said.

The episode will probably be available on DVD, he added.

A Fox spokesperson said that no decision has yet been made on the matter.

But we can guess what decision Fox will make. Which is rather bizarre, because it’s not like Family Guy isn’t a bastion of envelope-pushing humor. Fox had no problems, for instance, with the show suggesting in a visual graphic manner than Spider-Man suffers from premature ejaculation:

And the show regularly employs a sense of humor that is easily characterized as anti-woman. And it’s probably safe to assume that Family Guy will not deal with the topic of abortion in any way that is other than crude, rude, obnoxious, and less than understanding of women’s perspectives. But, as feminist blog Pandagon points out:

If you want a textbook example of how systemic sexism works, the taboo about portraying abortion on TV will suffice. It’s the most common outpatient procedure in the country, and yet we write it off as fringe.

Women are not “fringe.” Except to Hollywood.

OPENING THIS WEEK. Is Judd Apatow’s latest, Funny People, as blatantly misognynist as his last film, Knocked Up? (See last week’s The Week in Women for more on that.) No, it isn’t. But Funny People does not deviate from Hollywood’s standard operating procedure of telling stories almost exclusively about men. It’s easy to see how, say, Sarah Silverman could have played the role that Adam Sandler plays here, of a famous standup comic and movie actor who discovers he’s dying. Instead, unsurprisingly, the only female characters are barely characters at all, and are, instead, only prizes dangled before the male protagonists. Will Sandler re-win the love of his life (Leslie Mann), who left him years earlier when he proved unworthy of her? Will Sandler’s new assistant, played by Seth Rogen, win the cute girl neighbor (Aubrey Plaza) he likes? As is tediously typical, neither woman changes or grows. Both exit the story the same person they were when they entered it, already far smarter and wiser than the men. Perhaps Apatow thinks it’s flattering to suggest that women are perfect and don’t need to change or grow, but it isn’t.

On the foreign side, we do at least have Lorna’s Silence, a pan-European production about an Albania woman who agrees to serial fake marriages in order to remain in Belgium, where she and her Albanian boyfriend plan to open a cafe. You know, so they can work their asses off 16 hours a day for the rest of their lives. It’s a brutal story about the limitations women face and how men can so take advantage of that.

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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 AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).