Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Proposal as a feminist statement

Rebecca: This roundtable is on the film The Proposal and on feminism. You can refer to C.I.'s "Sandra Bullock's Proposal to pass $150 million mark" from last Sunday. I'm Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude and I'm moderating this roundtable. Participating are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Jess and Ava; Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man; C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review; Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills); Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix; Mike of Mikey Likes It!; Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz); Stan of Oh Boy It Never Ends; Ann of Ann's Mega Dub; and Isaiah of The World Today Just Nuts. The illustration is by Isaiah. I need someone to give us an overview? I'm going with Jess. Talk about the actress and films.

Sandra Bullock

Jess: Sandra Bullock stars in, and produced, The Proposal. Bullock came to fame with a supporting role in Demolition Man. She followed that with the box office blockbuster Speed starring her and Keanu Reeves. Was she a flash in the pan or someone audiences wanted to see? The romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping and the action flick The Net would prove that Sandra was someone audiences embraced. Her other films include Hope Floats, Practical Magic, 28 Days, Crash, Miss Congeniality and it's sequel, Two Weeks Notice, A Time To Kill and The Lake House. She's become a bankable star and she's also moved into producing, producing several of the films mentioned and also producing The George Lopez Show on TV. Her resume is such that film goers haven't put her into a single niche. My own personal favorites of her films are the comedies.

Rebecca: And The Proposal is a return to romantic comedy. Stan, do you want to give the overview there? Of the genre?

Stan: Sure. As C.I. points out in the entry Rebecca mentioned at the top, women largely vanished as lead actresses in this decade and that resulted from the efforts of society to 'macho up.' Romantic comedies became gross-out comedies with 'jokes' including the male lead has sex with the female lead who is out of it but comes to briefly to vomit and then blank back out. We're a long way from the sweetness of There's Something About Mary. Romantic comedies really fell by the wayside. They were trashed by male critics and by female critics trying to win applause from men. This was most obvious in the non-stop attacks from so-called critics on Meg Ryan who makes many kinds of films but is critically identified with romantic comedies. Briefly, for a few minutes prior to 9-11 and immediately after, Reese Witherspoon appeared to be someone who could play the lead in romantic comedies. But studios weren't interested in women and Reese was cast as one wife after another -- even winning the Academy Award for playing June Carter Cash in what has to be Reese's dullest onscreen performance. Women were shoved into 'wife' roles are shoved into tragedy or disease of the week TV movie plots that, no surprise, bombed at the box office because why pay for what you can see on Lifetime? Julia Roberts returned to films and no one cared and no one paid to see her. She's now starred in two flops, neither of which qualified as a romantic comedy. Once upon a time, she was the biggest female star of film. It has not been a good decade to be an actress. Angelina Jolie remains the only actress who can claim box office success throughout the decade although those are action films and when she tries to do drama, it doesn't matter that she gives a strong performance, no one cares. Witness the box office for The Changeling. Drew Barrymore and so many other actresses just fall out for the bulk of this decade. Into this climate comes Sandra's The Proposal. A romantic comedy at a time when romantic comedies are supposed to be over. A film with a female lead at a time when women supposedly can't carry films.

Rebecca: That's an incredible overview, thank you, Stan. For those who don't know, Stan frequently blogs about films at his site on Friday nights. Now Sandra's film is a huge success. Domestically, it's crossed the $150 million mark. At a time when women supposedly can't carry a film and romantic comedies are supposedly dead. But we're also seeing an attack on Sandra and I thought Elaine might want to grab that.

Elaine: Sure. As C.I. notes, the attacks on Meg Ryan? Just a copy of the attacks on Goldie. Goldie Hawn followed the huge hit Foul Play by deciding to produce as well as act. Her first film doing both roles was Private Benjamin a huge hit. In that film, Goldie's a Jewish princess who joins the military to escape from sadness and ends up discovering things about herself. She followed that with Seems Like Old Times -- a Neil Simon comedy, the what-happens-if-we-marry comedy Best Friends -- co-starring Burt Reynolds, then Swing Shift which she also produced but didn't get credit for -- Swing Shift's a look at women going to work during WWII, romance and friendship. She follows that with the comedy Protocol where she plays a sweet but not so smart character who slowly wakes up to the ways the US government can use you, she produced it and the follow up Wildcats where she played a divorced mother trying to keep custody of her two kids and coach football. After that comes Overboard where she plays a rich woman who loses her memory and her husband wants to live without her making it easy for a carpenter who hates her to convince her that they're married. Now I go over all of that because by Protocal, 1984, Goldie starts getting tagged with "The Goldie Syndrome" --

C.I.: Also around at the time, "The Fonda Syndrome."

Elaine: True. I'll bring that in. But supposedly, following Private Benjamin, Goldie remakes the same film over and over. Now those films aren't the same and even if you stick with the ones she produced -- Benjamin, Swing Shift, Protocol and Wildcats -- they're not the same films. Coach McGrath isn't spoiled the way Judy Benjamin is. Sunny Davis isn't married the way Kay Walsh is. The performances in all four films are fundamentally different and only Sunny qualifies as a dumb blond role. In the early eighties, Jane Fonda was another big box office actress. And, as C.I. pointed out, the same targeting went after her in the early and mid-80s, the same claims that she was making the same film over and over. As if 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond were the same film. But what it was all along was a way to attack actresses. And some women participated. It wasn't just men. Now Clint Eastwood was making the exact same film over and over. Sometimes it was a crime story in the olden days, sometimes it was modern. Sometimes his sidekick was Burt Reynolds, sometimes it was Charlie Sheen, but he always played the same role. And he didn't get called out for it. Now what happens is, the attacks on the actresses start and continue week after week, year after year, to send the message that 'cool people' don't see films starring this or that actress. If anyone went back to the nineties and went over Meg Ryan's reviews, you'd see a huge effort to destroy the woman that had nothing to do with what she was doing on screen. It was the same as with Goldie before. And there's an effort to attack Sandra now. They're already going after her film that comes out in November. They're attacking her, they're saying she does the same thing in every film. She doesn't but it's a concern they don't express about Seth Rogen who does do the same in every film. Or Tom Hanks who gives the same performance in every film whether it's a comedy or a drama about going to the moon. It's the women who get attacked over and over. It's the woman who get torn down. Now when Tom Hanks has enough bombs that he's no longer bankable, suddenly critics will say that he made the same film. But when actresses aren't repeating themselves, they're being tarred and feathered as if they were.

Rebecca: Well --

Betty: Can I jump in?

Rebecca: Sure.

Betty: I agree completely with what's being said. I agreed with it when C.I. rode it and it's something that C.I. and Ava always touch on including somewhere at this site in 2005. But I want to point out that the attacks going on right now, the attacks on Sandra and her latest film, are just what they did with Hillary. Sandra's got a wonderful comedy, she's the lead. She's carrying the film. Women are seeing the film. Analysis of the data shows that. Women supported Hillary. As with Hillary, what's happening is, you're hearing cries from men and some women that it's not feminist enough, that's it's not feminist at all. Just as Laura Flanders and other masculine women stood up and said Hillary wasn't a feminist, you get NPR's stupid John Powers attempting to say the film is anti-feminism. Now I just want to underscore a point here and I don't have to speak again after that but this is an important point. For John Powers to succeed, we all have to forget who the primary ticket buyers to Sandra's film have been: Women. For John Powers' lies to be accepted as truth, we have to believe that prissy little John knows more about feminism than millions of women who bought tickets to Sandra's film. This is just like with Hillary where men and masculine women worked overtime to try to tear women away from her. It's the exact same thing.

Rebecca: That is a really good point. Okay, we haven't heard from Mike, Ann, Isaiah, Kat and Cedric. What I'm planning on doing is playing devil's advocate with Ava and C.I. I'm planning on hitting them with charges of how awful the film supposedly is, how sexist it allegedly is. So before we get to that, I'm tossing to those who haven't spoken yet.

Cedric: I'll jump in. Wally and I were on the ground in Texas for weeks campaigning for Hillary and what Betty's talking about really is accurate. There was this real effort at that time to strip Hillary's female supporters from her. You had the masculine Laura Flanders and the liar Betsy Reed of The Nation, and tired racist Eve Ensler all attacking Hillary and repeatedly claiming she wasn't a feminist. The attacks are an effort to pull the core support away and that is what they're trying to do with Sandra Bullock by calling The Proposal sexist. Ann and I enjoyed the film. This is the only film we'll see this summer and we enjoyed it.

Ann: We really don't have a lot of time to go rushing to the films and you're looking at basically twenty dollars just for the our tickets. I mean, Mike and Elaine rushed out at the last minute last week to see the film again and that's really not something we can do because, if we haven't eaten, we're going to be hungry the entire movie or spending a fortune for bad concession stand food. I'd like to see The Hurt Locker but we both made a point to see Sandra's film. For me personally, my favorite film of hers is While You Were Sleeping followed closely by Murder By Numbers. And both of those films have personal meanings for me. And I'm a fan and see most of her movies. I'm more apt to see her in action than in drama. But that was our film for the summer. And, honestly, we could see it again and I'd be fine. I wouldn't be thinking, "Oh, we already saw that, let's see something else." It's a really strong and funny film. And I'm not surprised that it's pissed off some people because it says something and I think that makes people uncomfortable. If a woman does fluff and is fluff, she never threatens anyone. But if she tries to make a statement, it threatens a lot of people.

Kat: I agree with Ann about the threatening aspect. The film is so far beyond what people think of when they think about romantic comedies. It's beyond it in terms of laughter and in terms of story. There's a really dark side to this film and that's what makes it work. I'm referring to her character. But this is a funny film that makes people laugh. There is huge laughter in the theaters during this movie. I've seen it twice now and it's a solid audience pleaser. I think Betty's point was dead on.

Rebecca: Okay, I'll let Mike and Isaiah close so we can get to the devil's advocate part. Ava and C.I., some men and masculine women insist The Proposal is sexist. They say Sandra's playing a backlash role in a backlash film because, yet again, the career woman's a bitch.

Ava: As C.I. pointed out in the Sunday entry, Sandra's supposed to play what? A college student? A hooker? She's playing a woman with a job and I love how everyone says "career woman" as if it's bad thing. But I don't see her as a bitch. C.I. and I've talked about this. Where is she a bitch in the film?

Rebecca: She fires a man, Bob, because he didn't get an author to go on Oprah. Everyone in the office is scared of her.

C.I.: Her character, Margaret Tate, wants everyone to live up to a professional standard. Is she a bitch? I don't see how and the film plays with this, it plays with this perception and attempts to implode it. But Bob's fired for lying. He's under Margaret, that's why she can fire him. She told him to get an author to go on Oprah. He told her the author said no. She called the author, talked him into it and found out that he'd never been asked by Bob about it. She confronted Bob with that. That is grounds for dismissal. She gave Bob a direct order. He not only blew her off, he lied to her and told her that he'd tried and the author wasn't interested. Bob gets to then call her a bitch and everything else while the office that hates her watches with glee. But why do they hate her? Because she won't play Mommy? A man with the same standards, would he be so hated? He'd be feared but he wouldn't be so hated. I'm tossing to Mike because he wants to say something.

Mike: Yeah. When she enters the office, her first scene, you've got people surfing on the net, joking around, making personal calls. She's coming down the aisles and all the sudden, they're freaking out and trying to avoid getting called out by her. Called out for what? For not doing their job. Why weren't they doing their job to begin with? Where is she a bitch? She's got standards and she's the boss. If you don't like the standards, get another job. But she's called a bitch and she's called a witch, and she's supposedly on her broom, and you name it. And, at the end of the day, their big problem in the office appears to be that despite having a female boss they can't do what ever they want. In other words, the female boss doesn't let them push her around and that appears to be why they hate her and call her a bitch.

C.I.: And I agree with Mike but I'm going by what was in the film and what is now in the film. For example, in the film now, you see Ryan Reynolds spill his coffee and Sandra's when he bumps into a man in the office. Ryan Reynolds plays Sandra's assistant. He now needs a new shirt because his is stained with coffee. In the film playing at theaters, that's how it goes. However, a snippet removed from the film had Ryan, after the coffee is spilled on him tossing the remainder and the cup at the man who bumped into him. That got cut out. It had to be cut out because it's bad behavior. But where is Sandra's character doing that? Now she's telling Ryan that he needs to work this coming weekend and you can claim that's bitchy. Or you can accept the fact that when Sandra asks if that's a problem Ryan refuses to stand up for himself. Now is she a bitch for that reason or is he being little doormat? I'm not trying to make bad behavior acceptable or excusable but I am noting that Ryan Reynolds' character doesn't stand up for himself. He's a little suck up. Who needs to grow up and appreciate himself -- which is what he learns from Sandra when they go to his home. But I want to emphasize again, she's not throwing coffee at people. Ryan did. It didn't go over well with some audiences so the scene got trimmed. But can you imagine how the audience would have turned on Margaret and never got back on her side if she'd thrown hot coffee on anyone?

Rebecca: But she's not a nice character.

Ava: That's not the issue. The issue is whether or not she's the bitch she's being portrayed as by people who work under her. It's perfectly natural for anyone to gripe about their boss. But because the film is supposedly sexist, C.I.'s hitting on that point for a reason. Margaret is no role model and neither of us would argue that. But she's a complex character and she's the way she is for a reason and, equally true, she's being misjudged. Not just by Ryan's character. But he does get a new look at her when they're in Alaska.

Rebecca: Okay, well the film ends with someone shouting at Ryan something like, "Yeah, Andrew, show her who's boss!"

Cedric: Did you just do a spoiler?

Rebecca: If anyone didn't know the two were getting together, I would assume they've never seen a movie. So, what about it, "Yeah, Andrew, show her who's boss!"

C.I.: That's not sexist and that's why I spent so much time setting up how she's seen at the office. That's not the last scene of the movie by the way -- there are interviews after that. But in that scene, Ryan shows up as Sandra's leaving and declares his love for her and the audience watches spellbound with some cheering on the love. But the voice, the voice is a man's voice. Don't mistake that call as an endorsement of the statement being yelled. If that was supposed to be the 'message' of the film or something the director, Anne Fletcher, wanted the audiences to agree with, she would have given it to the African-American male. He's the only employee under Sandra that has any lines. He's the one who gives Ryan his shirt. He's the one the audience knows. But instead some White man, who is not even on camera, is yelling it. And you can see Margaret react by stiffening. And that moment is about what she's had to go through. Even now when some people are happy for her, there's still some asshole who wants to ruin the moment.

Ava: Because this isn't a fairy tale. Sandra's character is very complex, with a complex background. And this isn't an attempt to create a fairy tale. That yelled out sentence is a reminder to her and to all women of how we are judged. Now Sandra's going to continue to be Andrew's boss. Even if she makes him an editor, she will outrank him. So in terms of work, that statement makes no sense. In terms of a man's insecurities? It makes a lot of sense. And that comment goes to how Margaret got the reputation she did. She's not nice. She's not cuddly. She's not going to win My Favorite Boss. But her standards, are they unreasonable? No, they're not. And if a man had them, it wouldn't be a problem. But she won't play Mommy and she'll be called a bitch for it. And the fact that suddenly a few people in the office -- largely the women -- are feeling happy for her won't change the fact that some man can't deal with a woman who has power.

Rebecca: Sandra does stiffen. I'd forgotten that. But the character she's playing does stiffen. But why doesn't she call him out, whoever the guy is, why isn't she yelling at him?

Mike: So she can look like the bitch they keep saying she is? Think about it, think about what happens after Bob yells at her. She maintains her professional attitude in front of the office and then goes into the women's room and cries. She's not going to let them know how they get to her.

Rebecca: That's a good point.

Kat: I think that moment makes the film for me. That 'put her in her place, Andrew!' That's not the quote, Rebecca had it. Show her who's boss, or whatever. I wouldn't have enjoyed the movie as much because I would have been watching that moment and thinking, "Ryan loves her and the same office that made fun of him for agreeing to marry her is now happy and thrilled and they all over her?" That's a fairy tale. There's no way that the office that ripped her apart and hated her can all be on her side now. I found it real and I found it indicating what women have to deal with day after day.

Rebecca: Okay well here's another thing. When Andrew agrees to marry Margaret, he makes her first kneel before him in public and propose. So the criticism is that she has to kneel, to drop before him, in public and isn't that sexism?

Ava: What world do people live in? He doesn't like her, this is at the start of the film, she's telling him he has to marry her for his career, she's blackmailing him basically and he doesn't like her. Who wouldn't make the person kneel. Person. Because if Michael Douglas was playing Margaret and Catherine Zeta Jones was playing Andrew, we'd think nothing of Catherine making Michael kneel to propose. As C.I. points out so well in that entry from last Sunday, a romantic comedy depends upon interaction between the leads and the characters have to take a journey. In The Proposal, Sandra's character learns to open up. She's had to close off to protect herself. She learns to trust Ryan.

C.I.: And Ryan learns as well. Ryan's character is a pushover. He's a simp. He's an embarrassment. Woody Allen could play him, he's the ultimate nebbish. When he's forced into marrying Margaret, he begins to test and grow. He begins to say, "I will do this but I won't do that." He can't do that with Margaret before. Prior to the news that they will marry, he can't tell her, for example, "I will go to my grandmother's birthday party and we will do the work when I get back." In one brief incident after another, he learns to stand up for himself. And he needs Sandra for that -- a point Betty White's character grasps. His father's walking all over him in their first scene together and Ryan's standing up to him, but by hiding behind Sandra. And bit by bit, Ryan's character learns to stand up without hiding behind anyone. They both learn from each other. The roles could easily be flipped and often are.

Rebecca: We have three couples participating: Mike and Elaine, Ava and Jess and Ann and Cedric. Were there any problems couple wise watching?

Ann: Cedric and I didn't have any. We found both characters entertaining. And we rooted for both. C.I.'s point about how weak Andrew was at the start is certainly true. I didn't grasp that while we were rooting for him but that is what was going on. He really was too weak. And there's even a joke from Sandra about how he orders the same coffee she does because he's so nervous he might drop her coffee or something. But both characters grow and I don't know that Ryan would ever find his strength completely if Sandra hadn't revealed that a lot of her strength comes even when she's scared. That really seems to be a surprise for Andrew.

Cedric: And both growing equally and all, I'll just add, that when we saw it, Ann groaned. There was a scene she did not like. Sandra was in the shower and Ann leaned over and said, "Why does the woman always have to be naked?" And I said, "Just wait."

Ann: I don't watch a lot of TV, I hadn't seen the commercials or even the previews. I'd seen the newspaper ad and thta was really it. So I didn't realize Ryan Reynolds was about to get naked and that we'd see an equal amount of their flesh. But that was one more way where the film was about equality. And it was a funny scene.

Rebecca: Betty, what were your thoughts?

Betty: Well, I'm glad Ava and C.I. talked about Margaret because I didn't get her as a bitch. She could be a not nice person, absolutely. But a bitch? I saw that she was seen as such but it struck me as a wrongful conviction and I really do think that's the point of the film. Ryan learns his strength and learns that his impressions of Sandra were all off, Sandra learns that not everyone will use her weaknesses against her and that she can trust some people. I liked the movie because, as Kat said, it was rooted in reality and not a fairy tale.

Isaiah: I'll jump in to continue the issue of strength. Bit by bit, Andrew finds his strength but the film is about him getting to that point. Which is why he misses Sandra at the airport. Betty White's fixed that and if he'd found her then, it would have meant less for Andrew. For him to show real strength, he has to travel to New York and tell Sandra what he thinks. My take on the line about "Andrew, show her who's boss!" was the same as C.I.'s and Ava's. The guy yelling it is faceless, we have no idea who he is. And isn't that the sort of man that attacks a woman to begin with? Sandra stiffens and Ryan doesn't even look over at the guy. She makes a studied attempt to ignore this faceless guy and Ryan does ignore him. They are building a relationship, as the interviews that follow show, and they'll have to do it in the real world where assholes like that faceless man exist.

Rebecca: A very good point.

Stan: There were a lot of them and I'm going to pick up on this at my site this week. It may only be Friday's post or it may be more than that but there's a lot here to think about and discuss.

Rebecca: Agreed. Okay, we've been addressing The Proposal and feminism and actresses and a number of topics. Jim would want me to say that the e-mail address for this site is and this is a rush transcript.
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