A post by Foz Meadows discusses how women on screen have to look fashionable even if their characters aren’t: “Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty standards privilege women with long hair, and invariably worn loose, kept in place with spray and sheer force of will; their clothes are expensive and form-fitting, because we’re meant to admire their aspirationally well-toned bodies, which we can’t do if they’re wearing loose things or layers; their shoes have high heels, because we consider that fashionable, even for women who spend all day on their feet; their makeup is immaculate, their nails are manicured, and to me, they look largely like alien creatures, because 90% of the time, there’s a disconnect between who their appearance says they are and what their character is meant to be.”
This got me thinking of another problem with the way women are written in movies (though largely unrelated to Meadows’ point)—the number of rom-coms where the sad, lonely protagonist who can’t get a date is someone strikingly attractive. For example, Janine Garofalo in The Truth About Cats and Dogs or Julia Roberts in the god-awful America’s Sweethearts.
In both cases, the defense is that this isn’t a movie about looks, it’s a movie about insecurity, and even good-looking people can be insecure. While that is certainly true, I don’t buy it; it seems more a rationale for writing good-looking people (primarily women) into the Plain Jane role.
In Cats and Dogs, for instance (all rights to image with current holder), Garofalo plays a vet with a radio talk show. After handsome Ben Chaplin asks her out, sight unseen, Garofalo has a massive attack of insecurity—how could a hunk like that be interested in a schlub like her?—and decides to do the Cyrano thing, recruiting gorgeous buddy Uma Thurman to step in for her. Hilarity ensues.
I like the film, and Garofalo does a good job playing someone painfully shy, but then comes the scene where she asks Chaplin—who’s insisting he loves Thurman for her mind, not her looks—whether he’d still feel the same if Thurman looked like Garofalo. And this anguished look comes over Chaplin, who clearly doesn’t want to admit that no, he wouldn’t. Which seems to imply that yes, ultimately Garofalo, despite being drop-dead cute, isn’t attractive in this film’s universe. Otherwise the logical response would be “Why wouldn’t I be, you’re drop-dead cute” or at least “Well I prefer blondes, so no,” other than a vague hint that Garofalo doesn’t make the cut.
And of course, there’s the fact that she isn’t dating anyone else. Nobody tries to flirt with her, nobody hits on her, which can’t be explained by a lack of confidence—men do actually hit on attractive-but-shy women—but does fit with the implication she’s just too bland to get laid.
Likewise in America’s Sweethearts, Julia Roberts is supposedly too shy and awkward to find anyone because she’s a former fatty—OMG, she weighed seventy pounds more! And now that she’s shed that unbelievable megatonnage, she’s still to insecure to flirt or put the moves on anyone. But again, the movie accepts that nobody is going to make the first move, which even given she’s hanging out with her sister Catherine Zeta-Jones is hard to believe.
Nor is it easy to believe that a 70-pounds-heavier Roberts would be undatable. So they don’t stop with the weight, the film shows that back in the day, she’s actually frumpy—no sense of style, no idea how to dress to look good or hide her mammoth weight (all these references to her being super-heavy are meant to be sarcastic, just so you know). As one movie critic pointed out, it’s not just that she’s overweight it’s that anyone who lets herself get that repulsively obese obviously has no concept of personal appearance. Again it’s more about looks than about confidence.
So I cry bullshit.