Saturday, November 14, 2009

THAT is the moral of the story?

I'm of the opinion that there should be far better websites that turn up in Google when you type in the words "feminist movie reviews" than currently do. So, I'm mad about that, for starters. In my ideal world, there would be a feminist review site of great depth and at the top of the list would be an analysis of the creepy misogyny of Junebug, which no mainstream movie reviewers happened to mention. I'd write that myself, right now, but I'm not particularly in the mood to expound on the deeper meanings of blow jobs in independent cinema, and I'm more immediately mad about something ELSE.

I just caught a matinee of An Education. The moral of which movie is: Ladies, stay in school. Even though school is hard and dull and will make you hard and dull like the poor, benighted spinsters around you.

Why, you ask, should you settle for such a gruesome fate? Why should a young, pretty, lively girl like yourself go to useless, antiquated college? Well, because the smooth, thieving con artist you've found your lovely teenage self engaged to might turn out to be a serial adulterer with a wife and child living a block away from you, that's why. Men are scum, so you should get a degree. Not because you as a very smart woman might enjoy that education. No, no, beautiful women don't really enjoy education -- that's the consolation prize for the spotty, pasty virgins. No, the beautiful women, it's all jazz clubs and new frocks and poor vocabularies for them; that's all they need, bless 'em.

(I think I'm just as mad at the movie for dissing female academics as anything else. Yes, we spend all our time thinking and reading because it's not remotely rewarding.)

I don't know what I expected when I went to see this movie, but certainly not a simplistic morality play. Certainly, not THIS morality play asking, Why should women get educations at all?

What the movie lacks is the second part of that question -- the historical part of that question. In 1961, when the movie is set, why should women get an education when even your academic stage parents prefer marriage to an unsuitable suitor over Oxford for you in the end? When there are no jobs open for you except teaching inattentive teenagers literature -- or the ominous-sounding "civil service"? When there's plenty of talk about the stature of male academics (in this case C.S. Lewis) but not a single mention of a female academic who might serve as your model, who might give you hope?

The film doesn't spend enough time on how claustrophobic, how regimented the class and gender roles were in that era -- aw, hell, still ARE -- to explain why the question was even a valid one. Nor does it acknowledge that in the several millennia of people asking that very question -- should we educate women? -- the answer has predominantly, oppressively been "No." There's no acknowledgment that Jenny's most rebellious act very well could be that decision to go to Oxford. No -- joyless, muted, she goes off to study, her act of "rebellion" over. (What "rebellion" was there really in her following a normative narrative path of getting married?) And the film never explains how it is that her conservative parents conceived of her education in the first place. They sure put a hell of a lot of effort into something that they'd then lightly toss aside on essentially a whim.

There's a strange dissonance between the dialogue in the film -- which sounds as if someone behind the film knows what it's like to be a smart perceptive woman in the contradictory world -- and the narrative focus of the film, which glamorizes and romanticizes what I think of as the path of least resistance (become a woman, ladies, by attaching yourself to a man). The movie asks Jenny to choose between being Rosamund Pike, a dumb but sweet and happy fashion plate, and Olivia Williams, grim, isolated in her incidentally chic apartment, and burdened with very severe hair. (Which is an extremely false dichotomy anyway, because we know that both Pike and Williams in real life are smart and sexy and talented.)

The film proposes to favor one outcome (yay! school and self-reliance for girls!), while clearly being in lust with the other outcome (oolala, attaching yourself to sexy boys who lie to you). And even if it weren't ambivalently presented, the takeaway on this one would still be: Girls, put yourself, put your schooling, before the exciting boys. And maybe you can be at an age where that's a new thing to hear. If I were twelve, I might have needed to hear this; granted, when I was twelve, I was growing up in an enclave of reactionary Victorianism. More importantly, though, I'm not twelve now. This movie wasn't made as a PSA for twelve-year-olds who are daily having their senses-of-self assaulted. This movie was made for and by grown-ups whom you hope would have a more sophisticated -- dare I say, educated? -- take on the world.

And I am cranky because they clearly do not.

(P.S. I'll be the first to admit that the actors and actresses themselves make the movie so much better than this simple-minded moral. The performances of Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rosamund Pike -- among others, but not including Alfred Molina, who you won't be able to understand because of all the chewed scenery in his mouth -- are smart and subtle and deft. But encouraging you to see this movie for the performances is like encouraging you to vote for a candidate because she's a woman. So, no.)


Blogger tanita davis said...

Huh. I see I should cross THIS one right off my list.

It's always so irritating to actually break down and spend the money for a movie you think is going to be better than average, and come away more disappointed than you would be with a run-of-the-mill blockbuster.

Sun Nov 15, 11:47:00 AM EST  
Blogger Ethel Rohan said...

Welcome back, Seren! Great post, thank you. In so many ways, society really hasn't come very far, has it. Sad, and yes maddening. Thanks for raising your voice. Keep 'em coming :-)

Sun Nov 15, 02:29:00 PM EST  
Blogger Seren said...

Tanita, you feel my pain. Though I am glad that I went to see it at the Piedmont, which has taken to live pitches before shows trying to convince you to come back and spend more money there. I fear for its longevity.

Thanks, Ethel! :) I stay away, but I eventually come back, long-winded as ever.

Mon Nov 16, 07:33:00 PM EST  

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