We’ve been conditioned. Mainstream movies and television shows have trained us to expect certain archetypes of women: the doting housewife, the budding ingénue, the femme fatale, the chatty BFF. But what about the woman who’s just a person? Unremarkable in appearance, opinionated to a fault, and horny sometimes—you know, kind of like every lead character Woody Allen plays. Audiences and critics love Woody Allen's characters, so why aren’t their female counterparts represented on screen?
Because what makes a man likable, by Hollywood standards, doesn’t necessarily make for a likable woman (again, by Hollywood standards). Male protagonists are allowed to be ugly, closed-off womanizers and sociopathic drug lords, while their women are relegated to being their saving grace (see: every woman in every Nicholas Sparks movie) or the bane of their existence (see: Skyler White on Breaking Bad). Those men are lauded as fascinating characters, and, in the case of Breaking Bad, achievements in dramatic television. They generate loads of fine, fine TV critcism. However, when a female lead moves into uncomfortable terrain—like the wayward, sexual mess that is Lena Dunham’s character Hannah on HBO's Girls—you end up having inane conversations about whether a handsome man would ever deign to fuck her (see these pieces from Slate and Esquire).
“Whether you’re writing television or movies, at some point you’re going to encounter a male executive or investor who’s going to say, ‘I don’t like that woman. She’s unlikable,'” says Jill Soloway, director of the recent feature Afternoon Delight. “And often, it’s literally for being a regular human woman as opposed to an attracting human woman.”
An executive producer and writer on The United States of Tara and Six Feet Under, Jill Soloway is a master at taking dark comedies and using them as Trojan horses for stereotype-bucking feminist messages. Her latest work, and first film, Afternoon Delight, is an attempt to make audiences look beyond the traditional female archetypes.
It’s a struggle every day to get people to invest financially in portrayals of women that aren’t satisfying to straight white men. - Jill Soloway
But how do you get an audience to connect with something unfamiliar? As the Afternoon Delight trailer demonstrates, you manipulate the material until it feels familiar. What you get in the trailer is a frustrated housewife named Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) who is trying to rescue the soul of a sex worker named McKenna (Juno Temple). For Rachel, it's a hobby to end her monotonous daily routine of volunteering for the Jewish Community Center fundraisers, gossiping with fellow housewives, and waiting for her husband, a tech dude (Josh Radnor) who made some money making apps, to come home and rekindle their sex life. You expect a bi-curious mid-life crisis sex romp. But that’s just marketing relying on the well-worn paths. What you get on the big screen is a psychosexual comedy that sympathetically explores the inner turmoil of a contemporary suburban mother.
The results are jarring and not easily digested, mainly because it digs into a psyche we haven’t seen before. Kathryn Hahn’s Rachel is angry, scarred, and squirmy about her femininity. A girl’s night out sees Rachel drunk off wine and asking, “Has anybody here wondered what their aborted children would be like?” An innocent massage from McKenna turns violent when Rachel panics, afraid of losing control. Another day has her following McKenna to the home of one of her clients. A heaving and hairy man, mounted by McKenna, stares into Rachel’s eyes as he climaxes. Visibly shook, she rushes out of the room to catch her breath, her mind struggling to understand what she's just participated in, and how it should make her feel. In each of these moments, Soloway is complicating the typical depiction of female sexuality.
While Rachel struggles to kick-start her libido throughout the film, McKenna is the epitome of sexual confidence. Oftentimes in movies and TV, strippers turn up only to get abused or killed (see: any number of CSI episodes or Very Bad Things). Yet Soloway’s McKenna is the most satisfied character in the film. Following the kind of thinking we see in mainstream movies, the JCC mothers slut-shame her. But the film is quick to demonstrate how unfair this is, with a heartwarming scene of McKenna going out of her way to buy princess makeup for a would-be babysitting gig. The quiet moment reveals her other dimensions. She’s mothering and considerate, in addition to being confident with her profession, one that, as the film shows, doesn’t necessarily make someone bad.
“I know a lot of sex workers who are great people. Some are mothers, some are writers, some are teachers. I think our culture really prefers to put women in boxes,” said Soloway. “If there’s a mom on TV who dabbles in anything sexual, something terrible happens to her.”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the film. Rachel is a privileged mom with everything she needs in her hilltop Silverlake home; she doesn’t deserve your sympathy. After all, she’s got a fancy therapist to talk to. But to fall into that thinking is to miss the point of the film entirely. Soloway isn’t trying to make you feel sorry for Rachel. Rather, she’s trying to place her in your line of sight. She’s trying to make the idea of Rachel, and McKenna as well, a reality that can't be condescended to.
“It’s a struggle every day to get people to invest financially in portrayals of women that aren’t satisfying to straight white men,” said Soloway. “But people are trying to make money and the understanding is that non-traditional female portrayals make enough to shift the paradigm.”
Thanks to the effort of Soloway and her contemporaries, that paradigm is shifting. Earlier this summer, we saw another frank portrayal of female sexuality on the big screen, in Maggie Carrey’s The To Do List. There, Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy, an adventurous virgin who gives a hand job for the sake of crossing it for her list of sex acts to do before college. Fuck romance.
On television, in addition to Girls, there’s Jenji Kohan’s hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, a hilarious dramedy that showcases a virtually all-female, ethnically diverse cast. Despite its success, some viewers are frustrated that the lead character Piper (Taylor Schilling) is a spoiled soap-making bisexual WASP who selfishly wavers between her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) and prisonmate/ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). She’s unbearable if all you're prepared to see is another Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Where film and television can evolve from this moment shouldn't stop at including all types of women, but people of all races, classes, body types, and sexual orientations. The biggest critcism of Orange Is the New Black is that it falls back on the tired storytelling device of using a white protagonist as the entry point into a diverse world; the white person is there to make the audience feel comfortable among other ethnicities. Yet the show tries to move beyond this device, dedicating individual episodes to exploring the backgrounds of the inmates around Piper. And it works. Fans of the show love to debate and dedicate GIF galleries to their favorite characters.
It’s a wake-up call to studios that viewers are looking for themselves on screen. Networks are already sweating the lack of new dramas being pitched to them, having lost creative talent to Netflix. Pretty soon, studios won’t have to cookie-cut trailers because they think viewers won’t get it. Pretty soon, stories will be told and people will be portrayed in movies and television as they are, and that will be enough.
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
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