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Why ‘The Other Woman’ is a step back for women at the movies

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Hollywood needs to realize that sexism is no more acceptable in a movie starring Cameron Diaz than it is in a movie starring Seth Rogen.

BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

For the second week in a row, the country’s highest grossing comedy was The Other Woman. Starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, and Kate Upton, the female-centric story revolves around an unlikely group of friends who come together after discovering they are all being played by the same womanizer. Having already exceeded its $40 million production budget in the U.S. (and approaching $100 million worldwide), it’s hard not to look at The Other Woman as a very successful movie, especially considering how unreliable comedies tend to be in today’s marketplace.

So why doesn’t it feel like a success?

To explore what really makes The Other Woman such a frustrating piece of work, one has to go back a bit, to 2011’s Bridesmaids. Both a commercial and critical triumph, Bridesmaids signified to many the dawn of a new renaissance for women in comedy.

Yet since then, the only major female-driven comedy has been last year’s The Heat (also helmed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig).

Moreover, a disheartening report recently emerged to reveal that only 15 percent of protagonists in the 100 highest grossing films of 2013 were women, only 29 percent of those films had major characters even played by women, and just 30 percent of speaking roles overall went to female actors. This in spite of the fact the number-one movie in America last year was among the few to feature a woman in the leading role.

What this proves is that despite Hollywood’s hesitancy to put women front and center in big movies, comedy or otherwise, audiences are still hungry for them to do just that (it’s worth noting that women are faring slightly better on TV). The fact that women make up the majority of moviegoers is the film industry’s worst kept secret.

The Other Woman demonstrates this yet again—with 75 percent female audiences making up the attendance for its first weekend.

But what The Other Woman also demonstrates is that audiences are so starved for movies about women, and specifically for comedies about women, that Hollywood can get away with doing the bare minimum.

Over the weekend, Elizabeth Weitzman of the NY Daily News observed, “As Bridesmaids proved, movies for a female audience can be smart, funny, and make a lot of money. Better still, they can appeal to everyone. And yet, several of this spring’s films appear to have been made before viewers rebelled and gave up rom-coms for good. Or, at least, until they were desperate enough to embrace The Other Woman, a movie that earned a dismal 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.”

In this light, The Other Woman comes off as the sort of reactionary laziness that Hollywood is frequently known for. After Twilight and The Hunger Games hit, everyone struggled to find the next female-driven piece of YA genre fiction that would blow up (most of these efforts failed, although it seems Divergent has broken the curse). 

But what Hollywood fails to realize is that just because a comedy has female characters, this alone doesn’t make it a good comedy, let alone a good comedy about women. What separates something like Bridesmaids from The Other Woman (besides how funny it is) is that all the characters in Bridesmaids are so fully realized. Each of them has desires and faults and other aspects that make up a personality.

In contrast, many have mentioned that the characters in The Other Woman don’t even pass the Bechdel Test.

By all accounts, The Other Woman can’t get stupidity right either. Reviewers have criticized Kate Upton’s character, Amber, for being drawn as a hollow airhead. Ann Hornaday at The Sydney Morning Herald writes, “With good reason, feminism has rendered the Dumb Blonde stereotype obsolete, with filmmakers, audiences and actresses themselves unwilling to accept or perpetuate lazy, sexist assumptions.” 

Like many others, Hornaday is harsh on Upton, believing that she didn’t handle the dumb blonde role well. To be fair though, while Upton was probably cast mostly as a prop, it’s also the screenplay’s fault for not giving her more to do.

But what Hornaday does get right is the idea that even “dumb” characters deserve to be handled with respect. Hornaday also laments the more nuanced version of the “dumb blonde” character epitomized by Marilyn Monroe. According to Hornaday, Monroe “redeemed otherwise offensive, flibbertigibbet caricatures with her shrewd sense of timing, flawless physical command and an understanding of her own entertainment value whose effortlessness could be measured in direct proportion to the seriousness with which it was honed.”

On the flipside, Hornaday note a rise in beautiful but slow-witted male characters in popular movies. She writes, “The best among them might be Channing Tatum, who in films like 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike has evinced the pacing and physical prowess of Marilyn herself.”

Hornaday’s point here is astute. When Channing Tatum is in a bad movie, nobody blames him. He’s proven to be a good actor, even (and perhaps especially) when it comes to playing dummies. The takeaway from his success is that even stupid characters need to be smartly written (look at Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls, for instance), and that should go double for women.  

Other female-driven comedies have not only failed to capture Bridesmaids’ intelligent characterization but missed the boat on how to be effectively raunchy too. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand that just because Bridesmaids was successful, pairing women with dirty humor isn’t an automatic win.

Consider the new Elizabeth Banks comedy, Walk of Shame. Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed calls out the film for its hypocrisy, especially at the end, where Banks’ character “delivers her big speech, noting, among other things, that she shouldn’t have called what happened to her a ‘walk of shame’ and that a hook-up shouldn’t ‘automatically make me a pariah.'” Whitmore responds, “Right on! Except preceding that moment, the entire movie… has been based around how everyone mistakes Meghan for a prostitute.”

Perhaps the only thing good about the movie is that it’s made some, like The Daily Beast’s Amanda Marcotte, call for an end to the phrase “walk of shame” altogether.

Elizabeth Weitzman’s piece on the failure of these films offers a few suggestions to Hollywood on how to avoid similar issues in the future. She states:

It’s not enough for movies simply to have women in them. If you’re going to the trouble of making a film in the first place, there’s no reason it can’t be creative, or witty, or at least respectful of the people watching it.

For example: It doesn’t have to be a rehash of brainless clichés. Please, let’s finally declare a moratorium on airheaded heroines tripping over their own high heels, or toppling into shrubs and garbage cans as they spy on men.

It doesn’t have to be insulting. Why would Elizabeth Banks even want to star in a movie that mines humor from people repeatedly calling her ‘bitch?’

It doesn’t have to be so safely familiar that we know every single move before it arrives. See: the entire trailer for Blended.

Here’s another suggestion: don’t judge female-centric comedies any differently than you would judge male-centric ones.

Maybe The Other Woman should be looked at as a minor success, because sadly, anytime a movie with women in starring roles performs well, there’s a new conversation about how there is a place for women at the center of major films. And maybe if enough other movies have similar success, we won’t need to have this conversation anymore.

But in the meantime, Hollywood needs to realize that sexism is no more acceptable in a movie starring Cameron Diaz than it is in a movie starring Seth Rogen. While men and women are different, both groups should be treated with respect, and that includes how they’re portrayed in comedies. They need to realize that just as rom-coms with immature man-children get tiresome, so does recycling the same female caricatures we’ve seen in cinema for decades.

And more than anything else, they need to realize that the key to any great comedy, and any great movie, is complex characters. Bridesmaids did. That’s why three years later, we still need more films like it.

Photo via theotherwomanmovie.com