AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, April 2, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Jennifer Aniston may not want your help; lady filmmakers need to shut up and count their blessings; won’t someone think of the boys?…

WHAT’S A GIRL TO DO? Oh, there’s lot of advice in the offing. Does anyone fret so much over male movie stars and the course of their careers and the ups and downs of their romances with costars the way that female movie stars come in for? This week, Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wondered, “Could Jennifer Aniston ever pull off a Sandra Bullock at the Oscars?”:

Truth is, I’m fascinated with Aniston these days. (Tabloids serve up so much BS about her that I’ve got to restrain myself from calling her “Jen,” as if she’s my friend and we could feel even closer if I bought her favorite brand of handbag.)

I’m impressed with Aniston’s ambition, her industriousness; I’m interested in her willingness to play the game, first by the rules of fame that were handed to her by the TV success of “Friends” and later by the rules of celebrity that were thrust on her by her marriage and subsequent divorce from fellow actor Brad Pitt. Most of all, I’m intrigued to see what will happen if and when Aniston clearly defines a new place for herself, both professionally and personally.

On screen, I’m looking forward to her breakthrough moment — her “Blind Side” vision — when the actor matches up with a role that unshackles her from the type she’s been cast in for so long, that of the perky gal with great hair and a not-so-great track record in relationships. (Remember Sandra Bullock in those roles, too? They’re sooo one Oscar ago.)

I’m no fan of Aniston’s, partly because typecasting never happens without some complicity on an actor’s part, but I’m not picking on Schwarzbaum, either. I agree, in fact, with her conclusion:

Who wouldn’t cheer on Jennifer Aniston the appealing actor (think of her charming Oscar acceptance speech!) as well as the attractive woman who’s got every right to a fulfilling private life that’s nobody’s business but her own?

Maybe Schwarzbaum’s reaction — as well as, frankly, much of what I do here every week — is inevitable when female movie stars also are subject to comments such as those from the cowardly anonymous film critic who this week told the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six:

Aniston just can’t play the good friend anymore. She’s aged out, no matter the yoga and the highlights. She just can’t do America’s sweetheart next door. She needs a big wake-up call.

I’m not sure that Aniston’s characters over the last few years are fairly characterized as “the good friend” (which I’m sure should be “the good Friend”). And her roles have not been age-inappropriate (unlike, say, Sandra Bullock’s in All About Steve, which appeared to have been written for a woman half the actress’s age). Aniston the movie star might need a wakeup call, but it has nothing to do with her pretending to be something she’s not (ie, a younger woman) — she needs to choose better scripts and make better movies.

Look, now that Repo Man has flopped, will anyone be supplying anonymous quotes to gossip columns suggesting that Jude Law has “aged out” of action roles, no matter how buff he is? Of course not. And so there will be no essays defending him in response and wishing him the best. He can, presumably, fend for himself. And he does, presumably, know what he’s doing in pimping himself out to Hollywood.

But maybe Aniston’s career is fine. A string of flops has clearly not hurt her: she’s got a long list of films in various stages of development. Perhaps it’s only the fact that she is, clearly, still America’s best Friend means that her fans are merely wishing for something else for her. She seems happy enough with her career. She doesn’t seem desperate for anyone’s advice. She doesn’t appear to be asking for it, even in a subconscious way.

Maybe that’s what’s bothering me most about the Aniston chatter this week. There’s nothing wrong with offering advice. There’s nothing inherently sexist about offering advice. But there is something inherently sexist, sometimes, in the way that women are offered advice. It comes in the assumption that help must be wanted or needed if a woman isn’t doing things the way she’s “supposed” to be doing them. And just as the happily single woman does not need your advice on how to get married, perhaps Aniston does not need our advice on how to fix a career that may not be wrong for her.

LADY AGAINST WOMEN. Producer Lynda Obst certainly is very passionate her her “Defense of the Chick Flick” in The Atlantic. It’s too bad she can only defend the genre by perpetuating just-plain-wrong stereotypes about who goes to what kinds of movies, and by attacking other women.

First, she unthinkingly accepts the conventional — but wrong! — wisdom that only young boys see action movies. (As I’ve noted before, half of the people who saw The Dark Knight over opening weekend were female, evenly split between over and under 25 years old.) Then she insists that young boys see the most movies, even though an MPAA report last month demonstrated that women buy 55 pecent of all movie tickets, even though women make up 51 percent of the population.

Most egregiously, though, she then sets upon “the chattering class of women critics” — of course we chatter! that’s what critics do! — for our “sniping” over Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar win for Best Director:

But the writers now extolling Ms. Bigelow scoff at the “ghetto” they call the romantic comedy, which they claim “entraps” so much of Hollywood’s female talent. Yet this “ghetto” is like Scarsdale for us. It’s a suburban community where we can work steadily when the market kindly allows.

So even Obst admits that it’s a ghetto, if a pleasant one, and how nice of the men to allow us to have it! Obst’s attitude is appalling, but it’s hardly surprising if she actually likes movies about women who care only about men and babies… you know, like proper women are supposed to.

And the women critics who complain about these movies? We’re not proper ladies at all:

Are the critics who belittle these movies dyspeptic? Are they self-hating women? Are they other-women-haters who want to be the only woman on the tennis court (as we used to say in the ’80s)? They certainly don’t seem to hate these kinds of movies when men are the protagonists, as in Judd Apatow’s boy-fantasies, where underemployed characters played by Seth Rogen, etc. get the impossible girl and fart. (How adorable.) How about Superbad, or Along Came Polly or… I could name scores in this genre written by men that don’t get such dismissive treatment.

She could also read more critics, because those films are certainly not universally loved. (Along Came Polly is only 26 percent Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, for pete’s sake.)

These man-centric movies are not what the young actresses want: they want to be the star. And they’re not what young female writers want, either: they want to tell their own stories, and to become directors someday. But if they do, will they have to worry about critics biased against them? Even critics of their own gender?

Obst is deluded if she believes that critics — especially female critics — are biased against female filmmakers. Does she sincerely want two scales of quality, one for male filmmakers and another for women? Maybe she does. Certainly, she scoffs at the notion that women filmmakers should break away from the limited rom-com sandbox the men of Hollywood graciously allow them to play in:

The New York Times suggests that we Women in Film should find some sympathetic studio exec (as if!) and make a Hattie McDaniel biopic instead of another romantic comedy. Let’s think through how that works. Imagine we do find such a sap. No one goes to see the movie—and the gullible guy or gal who green-lit it gets fired. And the actress (Mo’Nique was suggested) can’t make another movie. There are consequences for such thinking in this town.

Everyone knows that ladies don’t make waves.

Clearly, Obst likes being ensconced in her comfortable, protected suburban enclave. And that’s fine: she can stay there. No one’s asking her to leave. But she shouldn’t expect to be treated like she’s playing on a level field. And she shouldn’t expect anyone to take her seriously when she doesn’t take herself seriously.

EVEN CONCERN-TROLLING IS MALE-CENTERED. “Is tween TV skewed toward girls?” asks The Envelope:

Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls? “Hannah Montana” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” reign on the Disney Channel. Tween idol Taylor Swift rules the radio. There are even tween girls in the White House. Since mega-successes like “High School Musical,” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers showed execs the way, pop culture has been flooded with tween girl entertainment. And yet another promising series about a cool teen girl, “Victorious,” debuts on Nickelodeon on Saturday.

After years — decades! — of entertainment skewed toward boys, can this possibly be a bad thing? Of course it can!

But what about the boys? Some parents are asking whether the TV landscape has undergone a tween gender shift that leaves boys in the lurch. “Is it just me, or does it seem when it comes to what’s going on in the tween world, it’s mostly about the girls?” asked a parenting blogger at the website Charm City Moms.

Perhaps it signals a fundamental change in our culture that is being reflected first in those most suceptible to a shift in attitudes:

Executives at Disney argue that the issue isn’t that boys aren’t being served enough boy characters, but that boys have changed and now have no problem relating to strong female leads. In other words, the world is becoming more coed, and tween TV is reflecting that.

Marjorie Cohn, executive vice president, original programming and development for Nickelodeon, said, “We don’t feel like boys are just about action and fighting shows. We’ve found that boys, especially in recent years, have become more emotionally intelligent. They love shows about relationships and humor.”

Could it be that what we’re seeing is not a dearth of programming for boys, but social progress?

If so, hoorah! But wait:

But some cultural observers argue that TV, and American culture generally, is neglecting tween boys’ developmental needs. Peg Tyre, author of the bestselling book “The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do,” believes that series like “iCarly” show boys only the way girls want to see them.

“What they want and how we see them are very different,” Tyre said. “We misunderstand boys’ fascination with violence. They’re playing with issues of loyalty, bravery and standing up for their friends — big moral questions. These days, playing nicely and quietly is considered a ‘better’ form of play than shooting each other with sticks. I’m not sure that’s true.”

And where do boys go to shoot each other with sticks nowadays? To video games. By not offering alternatives to girl culture, Tyre said, we force boys into “the fantasy world of Grand Theft Auto, which is really unsavory.”

Unbelievable. Has anyone ever worried about whether girls were being well served by children’s entertainment? Girls have been pandered to, sure — as with the whole Disney princess phenomenon. But worried about girls? Never. And just imagine the converse: Wouldn’t it have been preposterous for anyone to worry that Harry Potter may have been skewed toward boys? It’s only ever a problem when males are no longer the center of attention.

OPENING THIS WEEK. Oh, sure, there are female characters in Clash of the Titans. There’s Our Hero Perseus’s human mother, who was tricked by the god Zeus into having sex with him — he disguised himself as her husband — and then is condemned to death by that husband for her “unfaithfulness.” There’s Medusa, who was raped by one god and then punished afterward by a jealous goddess — how dare she be so enticing as to induce an irresistible frenzy in her rapist? — and now Medusa is a snake-headed villain who will be killed by Our Hero Perseus in a scene sure to evoke cheers. And people say there are no good roles for women.

Whiny teenaged brats celebrate the arrival of Miley Cyrus as a whiny teenaged brat who gets a whole movie’s worth of being the center of attention in The Last Song. Meanwhile, shrill harpies everywhere celebrate the arrival of a bevy of shrill harpies — and the violent men who love/hate them — in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too.

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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).