Friday, 31 August 2012

Rape Jokes

Of course you're all aware of the explosion of interest in rape, rape culture, rape legislation and rape jokes in the media recently. I have read so much commentary on rape jokes, particularly after the Daniel Tosh incident in which he put down a heckler at his show by suggesting that it would be funny if she was raped by members of the audience. One of the most pertinent responses to the whole sorry tale came from Jessica Valenti, whose piece Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke explains why some rape jokes can be funny. There are also plenty of lists of funny rape jokes - or rather, lists of jokes that the writer feels are funny, and the reasons that they are funny rather than horrible, as are many rape jokes.

My family just told me a couple of jokes which illustrated the point perfectly, whilst having nothing to do with rape at all. My dad began it, with this gem:
So a young mother was pushing her baby along a street in Manchester when a huge rottweiler leapt towards the pram, snarling. The mother was terrified but a suddenly a man appeared from nowhere, rushed into the fray, wrestled with the enormous dog and broke its neck. Another man, seeing everything that had happened, rushed over and said to the first man, "Wow, that was incredible, you're a hero! I can see the headline now: United fan saves baby from savage beast!"
"That's great" replied the first man, "but I'm not a United fan."
"Oh, ok: City fan saves baby from savage beast!"
"I'm not a City fan either, I'm a Liverpool fan."
"Oh, right! I can see the headline now: Scouser brutally murders family pet!
I laughed. My sister laughed too, and then she said hey, have you heard this one?
Wow, those new 3D TVs are so realistic! I fell asleep watching the Liverpool match last night, and when I woke up my wallet was gone!
I did not laugh. But I did realise, in a blinding flash, how perfectly this illustrates the argument about good rape jokes and bad rape jokes. In the first one, you're laughing at the media's treatment of a certain group of people. In the second one, you're laughing at that group of people. That's the difference, and it's a good measure of how jokes on any subject can work: jokes about racism rather than racist jokes, jokes about sexism rather than sexist jokes - the list is probably endless.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Review: Bride Wars

Having enjoyed watching and writing about Legally Blonde so much, I thought I'd follow up by writing about Bride Wars, which I watched last night with my long-suffering partner.

When I came home to house sit for a couple of weeks, I told my sister, who lives fairly close by, that I wanted all the happy girly films that she possessed. It took a while, because hey, my sister, but she came up trumps in the end with a healthy pile of boxes. She'd located some classics like Bridget Jones's Diary, some old favourites like Very Annie Mary and Bend It Like Beckham, some animations that she thought would fit the bill (Madagascar 1 and 2), and a couple of pink boxes that were unknown to me, one of which went straight to the bottom of the pile. No offense, I told my sister, and thanks for taking the time to think of stuff I hadn't asked for, but my criteria were pickier than I may have led her to believe. It wasn't good enough for a film to simply have more than one woman in it, or speak to issues that women are interested in (all caveats in place, as ever, of course). It wasn't enough for there to be lunches rather than explosions, relationships rather than car chases, shopping rather than video games. In fact, I told her, I would be happy to watch a film full of nothing but explosions, car chases and video games, as long as there are some women in it who are nice to each other.

That's the magic, crucial ingredient that I'm looking for in my films, particularly at the moment. I mean, I'm happy to watch films without this element, and I'll probably still enjoy them. Recently I've seen and enjoyed Zoolander and Lord of the Rings, which have about four female characters between them, none of whom even speak to each, let alone are nice to each other. The films were fine, and there's plenty to like about each of them, but they don't work for me on that base emotional level that I'm seeking out at the moment. However, while that kind of film - the kind that doesn't even have enough female characters to make a conversation between them possible - is annoying, I find them far more enjoyable than the ones where the women are unpleasant to each other. You know the ones I mean - films where the woman-woman interactions happen between a girlfriend and an ex-girlfriend, or a mother and her son's wife, or a man's fiancee and his best female friend. Those films routinely centre men, and the women who revolve around him are just-as-routinely bitchy, competitive, frivolous and jealous of each other. The two archetypes are 1) nice, normal woman and 2) beautiful bitch. There are so many versions of this it makes my brain hurt. Perhaps sometime I'll write up a nice long list! For now, though, suffice to say that I do not like this kind of film, and that they are legion.

So when I saw Bride Wars on the pile, I baulked. I saw the picture on the front, of two beautiful women glaring at each other, cake slices crossed like swords. I vaguely remembered the trailers, recalling a confused mix of competition, jealousy, cruelty, and a friendship sacrificed at the altar of marriage. I knew I wasn't up for it. I knew these women would not be kind to each other. So why did I end up watching it? I wanted something that I hadn't seen before, something lighthearted, something that would have a happy ending. It would have a happy ending, right? They would make up. Plus, my sister had brought it for me to watch. I had told her my reservations, and she had said that it was better than it looked. I didn't want to reject either her DVD or her reassurances. So we made dinner, closed the curtains, and I mentally lined up antidotes to watch afterwards, in case Bride Wars was exactly what I feared it would be.

And then it wasn't.

There were some heinous moments, for sure. There was fat hatred and slut shaming and heterosexism and, criminally, about 7 non-white actors in total - including crowd scenes - only 2 of whom spoke. This is not a fault-free film by any means, and my intention is not to pretend otherwise, or to pretend that these things don't matter because of the things I liked about it. However, I did like some things about it, much as my little bingo-card of bad filled up worryingly fast.

The plot did have some of the nastiness that I expected. Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway - Liv and Emma - are best friends their whole lives. They dream of the same perfect wedding at the Plaza hotel, with the same guests, bands, place settings etc - and with each other as their maids of honour. This all falls apart when their bookings are mishandled and it turns out that only one of them can get married on their chosen date. The other one can either book the Plaza's next available date, three years in the future, choose another venue, or get married in different rooms of the Plaza on the same day, at the same time (let's overlook the ridiculous implausibility of this scenario. We need to pit bride against bride somehow, and DAMMIT this is the best we could come up with). This is where things start to go wrong, as each woman thinks that the other should step aside and choose another venue - or perhaps wait three years to get married. Neither woman is willing to sacrifice her perfect wedding, or its immediacy, for her friend. There follows the main meat of the film, in which the two women fight over every wedding-related commodity, try to divide their mutual friends, and attempt to sabotage the wedding of their ex-best friend.

This, of course, is where the truly nasty stuff happens (apart from the ongoing whitewashing and heterosexism, of course). The two women become cruel, denigrating each other's appearances, exploiting each other's past troubles for their own gain, and generally doing anything they can think of to improve their own wedding and ruin their rival's. I didn't enjoy that in principle, and I definitely didn't enjoy the tropes that they were reduced to in pursuit of their goal. Emma, revealing that Liv used to be overweight, tricks Liv into eating fatty snacks so that she gets 'fat' and can't fit into her wedding dress. Liv sabotages Emma's tanning booth, turning Emma bright orange. Emma replaces Liv's blonde hair dye with blue, with the eventual consequence of Liv embarrassing herself at work and being demoted. 

They do make up in the end, of course. They also, to their credit, don't descend into dreadful behaviour without twinges of conscience and attempts to reconcile. They each try to get in touch with the other, but due to the special magic of rom-coms (that same magic that drives every Friends episode ever), wires are crossed and opportunities are missed, leaving each woman certain that the other is entirely uninterested in reconciliation or compromise. They eventually make up at the last possible second, only after Emma has snapped and physically attacked Liv as she walks down the aisle. After they've rolled around on the floor for a bit, they instantly forgive each other (because reasons) and Emma walks Liv down the aisle to get married.

It seems irreparable, the damage that this film does to women, to brides, to female friendships and relationships of any gender. And, honestly, I'm not sure that its ending makes up the difference. Having said that, I was won over by the narrator's closing message, as trite as it sounds: 

"Sometimes in life there really are bonds formed that can never be broken. Sometimes you really can find that one person who will stand by you no matter what; maybe you’ll find it in a spouse and celebrate it with your dream wedding, but there is also the chance that the one person you can count on for a lifetime, the one person who knows you, sometimes better than you know yourself, is the same person who's been standing beside you all along."
Perhaps it doesn't sound like much, but I was struck by the rarity of the notion that a relationship with a friend can be as important as a romantic relationship. Sure, you could find that bond with a spouse, but you could also find what sounds very much like a soulmate in a platonic friendship. (Incidentally, the gender of that friendship - or spouse - isn't specified, which I appreciate.) Isn't that unusual? Few films think to question the validity of the ultimate goal of a stable relationship; still fewer chick flicks/rom coms do. And yet here is a miserable excuse of a a chick flick, in which women 'hilariously' lose any semblance of humanity in a humiliating struggle to have the best wedding, trampling over loyalty and love on the way, which ends up celebrating the bonds of friendship over those of matrimony.

Not convinced? Emma doesn't end up with the guy she gets engaged to at the beginning of the film. When Liv's brother was introduced to the plot, I saw the telltale signs of a potential romantic interest, but I dismissed it because I assumed that this film couldn't possibly engage an extra source of drama. The fiancĂ©s must remain stable, because the catty women fighting over their weddings are the problem, not their patient, long-suffering partners. To have one of the relationships fail would be to introduce some complexity beyond the notion that bitches be crazy, and I just couldn't imagine it. The fact that the film actually goes with the idea that one of the men could be less than perfect in addition to the less-than-perfect women adds a touch of much needed complexity to the plot and, more importantly, highlights the significance of the women's platonic bond over the inter-gender romantic bonds. Obviously it's not exactly groundbreaking for a woman to begin a film with one guy, discover that he is wrong for her, and end up driving into the sunset with a more suitable guy. And it's way less daring than it could have been if, for example, Emma ended up (gasp!) single. But it's a nice touch, I think, especially as it foregrounds the importance of Emma and Lil's relationship, which is the one that survives and is truly celebrated.

So to sum up: Bride Wars is not a good film! It is reductive and insulting, it is incredibly white and boringly heterosexist, and the performances leave plenty to be desired. And it did indeed feature women being pretty nasty to each other because weddings are the most important thing in the world. Having said all that, the celebration of platonic friendship was truly refreshing, and it left me feeling uplifted despite the overarching banality of the film.