Indie Movies Can Be Sexist, Too

Sarah Seltzer

"Quirky" Hollywood heroines can be just as sexistly-rendered as the glam ones, as feminist reaction to 500 Days of Summer demonstrates.

The new indie flick, 500 Days of Summer, is getting some flak from the feminist commentariat for its gender politics, particularly its use of a new female stereotype.

In recent years, bloggers and websites (most notably the Onion, here) have been keeping track of a Hollywood archetype known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or magical pixie dream girl, or indie dream girl, etc.) Harkening back to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s this character is small, quirky, and exuberant, with the requisite interesting fashion sense. But her function isn’t to blossom and grow as a unique individual over the course of the film. Instead, she awakens creativity, hope, romance, or whatever else was sleeping within the male protagonist. She is the catalyst for his change or his feelings, but she inevitably doesn’t have much a personality of her own underneath the endearing eccentricities.

Summer, the heroine of 500 Days of Summer, apparently fits the mold. Willa Paskin slams the politics embedded within this most recent film at Double X:

There’s no critique of the fact that Tom is totally oblivious to
Summer’s inner life, emotions, issues. He’s sweet! He’s in love! How
could she not love him back? She really, really should! The fact that
she doesn’t love him back (plus a late developing, implausible plot
twist) makes her seem unknowable and heartless, even though Tom has
never tried to know her—he’s been too busy being in love with her.

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Paskin and others are right to call "offbeat" films to task for indulging in the same sexist tripe as the big-budget rom-coms do. An artily-filmed indie film with a clever heroine (even if she’s played by an actress who graced the cover of Bust) does not a feminist statement make. And as all battle-worn feminists know, the kind of insidious sexism that comes from countercultural or even leftist corners can be hard to combat because of its progressive, hip facade.

But the upside is that drawing parallels between different iterations of the same stereotypes can be really instructive. I’m sure the 500 Days creative folks are not relishing all the He’s Just Not That Into You comparisons their film is getting, but maybe that reference hits home in a way that feminist deconstruction does not.

Beyond our critique of the films that disappoint us, we can still dream of a heroine who’s not a dream girl. As Doree Shafrir, in her piece about 500 Days writes at The Daily Beast:

What about a romantic comedy about a woman who actually has opinions,
who doesn’t play hard to get, who articulates her hopes and dreams and
expects her boyfriend to get excited about those, too? Or is that too
much to ask even from indie Hollywood?

It may be too much to ask, but we have to keep asking anyway.

The last time I can remember a romantic comedy with a real, relatable, capable-of-growth, posssessing-an-inner-life heroine (albeit a quirky, eccentric one) was Juno. And that was wrapped in a creepily-anti choice, pro-female self-sacrifice plot structure which made the film a mixed bag for feminists. It was almost as if a three-dimensional female protagonist was only allowed through the gates of existence by doing penance–fulfilling the conservative fantasy of the willing baby-giving-up teen mom–within her film’s storyline.

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