Sunday, June 6, 2010

Very specific version of love, actually

So I just watched "Love Actually" for the first time. I know, it came out 7 years ago, so this is not BREAKING FEMINIST NEWS. But this movie made me so grumpy, which is of course a strong motivator to blog it out.

Not that it doesn't have good bits! Hugh Grant dancing around 10 Downing Street: always welcome, in my book. (Speaking of great scenes of dudes dancing in movies: have you guys seen In and Out? Go put that on your Netflix queue stat.) That adorable kid's adorable smiles: yes. That gorgeous Brazilian guy: yes, yes, yes. That wretched Christmas song: truly and hilariously wretched! But it was just a little bit of adorableness, wrapped in a pastry of patriarchy, wrapped in a LIE!

Since social science research is my paying job now, one thing I liked about Love Actually is that it provides a nice sample size. Let's examine our data, shall we?
(Spoilers after this, but trust me, the plots go pretty predictably.)

"Love Actually" is a movie with about 8 plotlines following various couples/love triangles/groups of people, all of whose lives intertwine one magical British Christmas. Common themes include attractive heterosexual cisgender white people, younger subservient passive women with older powerful active men, and loving people despite never having spoken to them. Because isn't that what love is all about? Let's take a look at the plotlines (list stolen from Wikipedia) and what they say about the difference between male and female agency in the world of looove. Bonus: spot the racism, fat-shaming, and sluts! (Slut is here defined as “a woman who demonstrates proof of sexual desire.” You will see this is not something I’m pulling out of whole cloth.)

Jamie and Aurelia: Jamie discovers his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother, so he goes off to a French cottage to work on his novel. His submissive Portuguese housekeeper brings him coffee, cleans up after him, and chases after his pages that blow away while he's writing outdoors. Oh no, some of the papers blew into the lake! She'd better strip to her underwear and jump in! Sadly, they must part. She confesses her love, but he doesn't speak Portuguese, so he doesn't understand her. She kisses him, then they part. He then learns Portuguese in a month, travels to her hometown, and proposes marriage in front of her whole neighborhood, and of course she accepts. She has learned English, meanwhile! "Just in case"! So why isn't this the story about a woman who fell for her employer, then learned English while dreaming he'd come for her? Oh wait, that's still iffy.
  • Checklist: male perspective, active man/passive woman (mostly), slut!, unspoken love, powerful man/subservient woman, older man/younger woman, bonus fat-shaming.
  • male agency= flying to Portugal and proposing marriage.
  • female agency=snoggin' dude once, waiting.
Juliet, Peter, and Mark: A familiar story here: Mark is in love with his best mate’s new wife, though she thought he hated her because he treated her coldly and never talked to her. That is how I, too, experience and express my love for a woman! I don’t have to interact with her or talk to her, I just look at her and fall right in love. Mark shows up at J&P's doorstep and creepily declares his love via flash cards while she makes admiring, wistful faces at him and her husband waits downstairs, thinking she's dealing with Christmas carolers. Then he leaves romantically, and she runs after him and kisses him, then returns to her husband. BONUS: We get this story from Mark's perspective, and it's mostly Mark and Juliet on screen. We hardly see Peter (played by the very foxy Chiwetel Ejiofor, the underuse of whom has to be illegal). So in a love triangle, you have two white people and one black person, and the black person is introduced but immediately relegated to the unimportant, uninteresting point of the triangle (we find out literally nothing about Peter, except that Mark is his friend and Juliet is his wife). Hmm, not like that's problematic in itself.
  • Checklist: male perspective, active man/passive woman, unspoken love, older man/younger woman (only because I looked up the actors' ages--Mark is 29, whereas Keira Knightley is friggin' 18).
  • male agency=elaborate demonstrations of love to woman who has expressed zero interest in him, and has in fact married his best friend.
  • female agency=snoggin' dude once.
Harry, Karen, and Mia: Harry is a middle-aged business dude, Karen is his loving wife and mother of his children (and the only female main character in this entire movie who looks over 30), and Mia is Harry's hot young secretary. Can you see where this is going? Mia flirts openly with the boss, dresses sexily for the company party (in a RED DRESS with DEVIL HORNS, for Pete's sake) and dances with Harry while his wife watches jealously, and offers subtle lines like "I think I made it pretty clear what I could give you for Christmas." Emma Thompson is amazing as Karen, but all we get is her snooping through husband's coat after catching him near jewelry counter and finding a wildly expensive necklace, smiling because he's always gotten her crap presents but now he's finally going to prove his love with shiny things... then receiving a CD for Christmas instead. (Cut to secretary tarting around her bedroom, which is decorated like a red-velvet brothel, wearing lingerie and the necklace.) The wife cries alone to Joni Mitchell, then semi-confronts her husband at the kids' Christmas concert, but instead of leaving him or making a decision to stay, we just cut forward and now they're together still, and she looks unhappy as hell, and ugh. Bonus: she characterizes herself as "frigid." And "fat," because why the hell not.
  • Checklist: slut!!!, powerful man/subservient woman (to quote a much better Hugh Grant movie: "He was shagging his secretary. It’s such a cliche!"), older man/younger woman.
  • male agency=buying jewelry, sneaking around.
  • female agency (slut)=dressing sluttily, dancing sluttily, sitting with her legs open wide sluttily, flirting sluttily, refusing to wait for a man to notice her like the big slut that she is, etc.
  • female agency (wife)=snooping, sad confrontations without resolution, listening to Joni Mitchell
David and Natalie: He's the prime minister. She brings him biscuits and accidentally says fuckwords in front of him, and looks about 19, and is caught in a compromising position with the president of the United States (who is, not all that inexplicably, Billy Bob Thornton). Bonus colonialism: She's a metaphor for Iraq! After Prez Thornton's discreet indiscretion, the PM gets to make a speech about how America just grabs what it wants without regard for other countries' desires! (Other countries here being Britain, not Iraq. In case that wasn't clear.) So PM Hugh Grant sends her away because she is just too sexy to work with, and it's awkward, but she sends him a Christmas card telling him not to worry about the time something happened with her and the President, because nothing happened, and she is "Yours." Note: Their entire emotional engagement so far is that he's asked her about her ex-boyfriend, who called her fat and was mean, and who he offers to have killed. Also, she's brought him lots of biscuits. Bonus fat-shaming, and not just from sucky ex-boyfriend, despite the fact that it’s Hugh Grant eating all the biscuits here. So he tracks her down on Christmas night and they snog and some madcap slapstick hijinks happen, whatever.
  • Checklist: male perspective, unspoken love, active man/passive woman, older man/younger woman, powerful man/subservient woman (the PM and the biscuit girl--hard to find a bigger power differential).
  • male agency=leading free world, searching long street for ages on Christmas Eve
  • female agency=sending Christmas card and waiting. And maybe flirting/kissing/consensually making eyes at the President, or maybe being coerced by him--what's the difference? The important thing is how Hugh Grant feels about the situation!
Daniel, Sam, & Joanna: Eleven-year-old Sam's mother has just died, and stepdad Daniel/Liam Neeson has no idea how to be a father to Sam, which is obvious by the fact that he talks to Sam really explicitly and unpleasantly about sex. Sam claims to have found the love of his life, the coolest girl in school. (Just once, I want to see a dorky girl falling for the coolest guy in school and getting with him, in a cute little-kid way of course. Just ONCE.) He learns to play the drums to impress her at the Christmas concert, where she's the star singer. Then he storms past airport security to confess his 11-year-old love before she leaves for America forever! Instead, he says bye and is happy she knows his name, then the TSA guys drag him back to Daniel, but she's followed him all the way back and gives him a cute 11-year-old kiss before leaving. Okay, fine, so it's pretty cute, but why are the genders never reversed? (To say nothing of same-sex anything. Don't wait up for a gay couple here.) At least we've averted older man/younger woman. Oh, and Liam Neeson literally bumps into a sexy blonde mother at the end. Love actually is heavily foreshadowed!
  • Checklist: male perspective, active man/passive woman, unspoken love
  • male agency=learning drums, busting through airport security.
  • female agency=following dude back and kissin' dude once. Why? I don't know, we know nothing about her except that she is cool and American. And she appears to be black--again, though, the story is from the white person's perspective.
Sarah & Karl: From the lady's perspective! Sarah has been in love with (younger!) dreamboat coworker Karl (swoon) since she met him at work, but she can't work up the courage to confess--plus, she's always on the phone with someone she calls "my darling." Sarah and Karl accidentally end up slow-dancing at the company party, and next thing we know, they're makin' out at her place, about to TOTALLY DO IT, when her phone rings. It's her darling, who turns out to be her mentally ill institutionalized brother, who "calls a lot." She hangs up; more make-outs; he calls again; she has to leave to go talk him down. Karl pouts gorgeously before leaving. There's no raincheck, no plan for a second (okay, first) date, no confession of love. They just awkwardly say bye at the office later, and that's it. She hangs out with her brother on Christmas. I got a mad case of vicarious lady blue-balls from watching this. Also, isn't it nice that when a man wants someone, he goes after her with the forces of the entire United Kingdom and/or at least some posterboards, but when a woman wants someone, she can't have him because she's busy taking care of other people? (Except for the times she can't have him because she's a big slut.) Bonus: disability weirdness. I mean, I appreciate that she clearly and deeply loves her brother and doesn’t view him as a burden. But it’s hard to interpret his depiction as anything other than “burdensome” when we go from hotfastsexytimes to drawn-looking woman sitting in generic institution with a violent, grunting man. Also, why is love depicted as a zero-sum game? Oh, but only for women: Liam Neeson is also a single caretaker, but you bet he’s gonna bone that hot mama. Or at least try, until her kid calls her and she rushes away, because being a female caretaker is a lot like being Batman: there can be no delegating, no babysitters and no aides, because if you’re not on-call 24/7, that’s NEGLECT, and you’re the goddam Batman.
  • Checklist: unspoken love, passive man/passive woman. Oh man, nobody wins in this one.
  • male agency=inviting woman to dance during fast song that abruptly changes to slow song and not sitting down, but dancing slow, which leads to etc.
  • female agency=going along with above.
Colin, Tony, and assorted sluts: Colin is an "ugly" dude (Hollywood homely, especially in a film full of ridiculously attractive actors); more unfortunately, he is obnoxious. His best friend Tony is unable to talk him out of a plan to journey to America, where babes in every bar in the land will bang him because he's English, and American chicks dig that. He goes to Milwaukee, asks the cab driver outside the airport to take him to "a bar," and in a scene so ridiculously farcical that even my brother (not exactly Feminist Critic #1, or even #1 million) was saying, "This HAS to be a dream sequence," he immediately stumbles in a porno plot. Four girls, each hotter than the next! All fawn over him! They invite him back to their place, but pout that they're so poor, they only have one bed, which they all share, and which they'll have to share with him. Plus, they're so poor, they don't even have pajamas, so they'll have to sleep NAKED! Who let this shit get into an actual film? Jesus Christ. He comes back and delivers one of the hot chicks for Tony, but keeps the others for himself.
  • Checklist: I'm not even going to bother with this one. However, bonus: main character Colin is white, best friend Tony is black. Because duh.
Billy Mack and Joe: Billy Mack is a wacky old rocker releasing a purposefully awful Christmas hit; Joe is his long-suffering manager. Billy M. heads to Elton John’s fab party on Christmas Eve, but winds up back at Joe’s because that’s who he really loves (no homo!), even if Joe is boring and fat. Which I guess is positive, though I could do without the fat-hatred and homophobia bonuses. However, color me disappointed and unsurprised that the “satisfying love comes in many and diverse forms!” message is given to two men. (Only half-credit for Sarah above, sorry.)

Part of the problem, I daresay, is that even two+ hours is not enough to delve into eight romantic plots in any kind of emotional depth. That’s not automatically bad. It is okay to create art about love that is not based in a deep examination of attraction, motivation, past experiences, and current emotions. I mean, that’s how real people fall in love, because real people have experiences, emotions, etc., but not every romance has to delve quite so deeply. I get that! So—if I may get all lit-crit for a second here—why follow eight stories, when any one could fill an entire film? What is the writer/director/filmmaking team doing here?

Based on the title, telegraphed from the opening monologue about how much love there is in the world and especially airports, the movie’s main theme is that “love actually is all around.” A theme is a thesis; a text is an argument. This film, while purporting to examine the diversity and/or universality of love, is actually presenting eight scenarios that tell eight very similar stories. So what is it really arguing?

And now that I’m thinking about it, rushing through 8 love stories does present its own problems. Especially when we’re not getting allusions to people’s pasts or inner lives, especially women’s inner lives. But even the powerful active men get a pretty short stick here, emotional-depth-wise.

I watched this movie with my family, and my mom was disgusted by it. “They’re all so shallow!” she said. I was just relieved not to be the only person resenting the movie, but thinking back: yes, yes they are. In this vision, "love" is that feeling you get when see someone attractive. Typically, for men, a “boner.” Being asked to believe that Mark loves Juliet despite having never interacted with her (because he loves her, so actually talking to her like a person would be too painful), or that Aurelia and Colin Firth love each other enough to get married despite never having communicated, or that David loves Natalie as evidence by the fact that he looked at her when she was first introduced as his biscuit-bringer and he got a boner (and of course she loves him back, passionately and truly, because he’s the foxy bachelor Prime Minister)... I mean, it’s like when this guy I knew angsted about a break-up for longer than the duration of the relationship. He and a woman his age had casually dated for a few months, then she broke it off, claiming not to have time for a relationship (classic just-not-that-into-you brush-off). Cue the angst because, damn it, she was the love of his life, and now he will never love again, because he loved her! How does he know? Well, they hung out, and she was pretty, and never mind that he didn’t seem to know much about her deeply, emotionally, empathetically, know her as a human being, in other words—she was pretty and nearby, and therefore he loved her. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

No, that’s what “Love Actually” is all about. But that’s not love. Love can certainly include immediate, painful lust (been there, ladies and gents!), but that’s only one tiny part. Love means knowing someone and accepting all the parts of them and wanting to be better for them and wanting them to be happy. Romantic love typically includes liking to see them naked and touching them and being touched by them, and so on, but that’s hardly the gist. Love is complicated! It would take many books, movies, songs, etc., to try to express what it is, in fact, all about. Fortunately, we’ve got those, and we’re making more all the time.

But do we really need more visions of the same shallow “love”? I submit that we do not.

An exercise, for the writers and other artmakers among us: next time you find yourself writing the same old scenario, as if guided by spirits of art past, consider flipping it. Writing a man who wants to shag his secretary but has a wife? Why not a woman who wants to shag her secretary (male or female) but has a husband or wife? Why not a female prime minister who wants to shag her sexy young butler? Why not a dorky ten-year-old girl with a crush, why not a man who loves his best friend or a woman who loves her husband’s best friend, why not a woman who expresses sexual desire without putting the “ho” in “homewrecker”? If the answer to “Why not?” is “Because... um... er...” and not “Because I have a compelling reason to write the previous scenario as it is,” then you need to do some thinking about what you're really arguing.

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