By Alice Shindelar
About a month ago, I made the dramatic decision to limit my film and television consumption to only women writers and directors. This isn’t out of distaste for male directors and writers. I love movies of all kinds, for countless reasons. I would never allow my opinion of a film or TV series to be influenced by the gender of the creative force behind it. That said, women writers and directors are few and far between. Their struggle for recognition in the industry and the funds to make their films is well-known (although, not well-known enough). Still, even the most ingenious amongst them tends to fade into the background before they’ve weathered a full career.
As an aspiring writer-director myself, I’ve always kept my ear closely trained on the life events that lead people in this field to success, or even just a career that pays the bills. I look for myself in their stories. I imagine how my flat feet could follow their huge strides. Or, at least, I try. It’s next to impossible to picture myself following in the footsteps of any Kubrick, or Coppola, or Scorsese. My inability to grow facial hair puts a stop to that. So I watch for the women, and this project is an attempt to do that more acutely.
I’m here because I want to know if my own sex has done a better job at creating characters to whom I can relate. I want to know if women’s stories make me see things differently. Nothing shapes our worldview more than media, after all. I want the cannon fodder to retaliate when the money people try and tell me that stories told by women don’t put asses in the seats, or female leads can’t carry the show, or all women have to write about is menstrual blood and motherhood. To start off this journey, I dove into the oeuvre of my hometown girl, Diablo Cody.
Diablo Cody has come a long way since Juno, her 2007 debut about a pregnant teenager who decides to give her child up for adoption. I had wanted to be so much more impressed with Juno than I was. Cinema has been saturated with one boy-obsessed, make-up addict of a teenage girl after another. Juno offers a reprise from this, but Cody failed to take it deeper into the emotional reality of what Juno faces as a pregnant teenager; instead, she displayed her evident weakness for overwriting by hiding Juno behind a barrage of witticism. One can only top their own dialogue so many times in the same story. Every writer has to start somewhere, though, and Juno’s success earned Cody a phone call from Steven Spielberg, who produced her TV series United States of Tara and aided in the sale of her next screenplay, Jennifer’s Body (2009), a horror story about a gorgeous teenage girl turned cannibal-demon.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cody talks about how, after Juno, women actors flocked to her with requests for more complicated female parts they could sink their teeth into. She simultaneously failed and succeeded in this respect. Jennifer’s Body breaks no new ground with sexpot Megan Fox cast as the titular Jennifer, a character directly derived from the countless myths of the dangers of hot women, except she makes it uber-hot by smearing the entrails of her male victims all over her face – hot and sloppy girls are even hotter. Equally attractive Amanda Seyfried, cast as Jennifer’s dorky friend, Anita, serves as a painful reminder of Hollywood’s misconception that thick-framed glasses are all it takes to make a convincing outcast. There’s one standout scene in the film, in which Seyfried’s character loses her virginity in an honest portrayal of the fumbles and excitement that might accompany such an event.
United States of Tara (2009-2011), on the other hand, proved to be Cody’s first foray into a well written, three-dimensional female character. Toni Collette plays Tara Gregson, a woman who struggles to balances a myriad of personalities that range from a horny 15-year-old to a Vietnam vet as a result of dissociative identity disorder. The series follows her struggle to maintain her familial relationships, while searching to discover the traumatic event that prompted her to shield her past behind all of these personalities. It’s worth watching the whole show just to witness Collette waft seamlessly between playing a southern belle conservative mother, to a feminist psychologist, to an animal that pees on sleeping people in the same episode (all personalities that Tara transitions into throughout the series). Cody’s true writing chops come out in the conflicts Tara encounters with her children, husband, and sister throughout the show. Cody never over-dramatizes Tara’s struggle. Yelling matches that weaker writers would end in divorce, instead explore the constant confrontation and negotiation that all families stand-up against. They fight, they cry, and they go on loving each other. Patton Oswalt – who plays Neil, the ugly duckling helplessly loyal to (and in love with) Tara’s beautiful sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt), stands out as an insightful recurring character in Cody’s work, explored further in her most autobiographical film yet, Young Adult (2011).
Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a young adult fiction writer who grew up as the popular girl in high school and now leads the life of a lonely drunk. Mavis returns to her hometown convinced that she can win back her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is now happily married and a new father. Again, Cody writes a part for Oswalt as Matt Freehauf, the ugly duckling sidekick to the pretty girl. Mavis, who fails to see the insanity of her mission and blindly throws herself at Buddy, turns to Matt for a drinking companion. It’s their relationship that makes the film. Mavis repeatedly snubs Matt, writing him off as a weirdo, yet he keeps coming back, insistent that they’re two of a kind. Never has a self-absorbed bitch seemed so beautiful beneath it all as in the eyes of the one who loves her. They are people that know about wanting.
Cody has grown immensely as a writer. As she says in an interview on the feminist blog, The Frisky, “here’s a problem that is holding back feminism … We all hold each other up to an incredibly high standard in a way that men do not. Let’s say a woman directs a movie that’s not very good – everybody piles up on her. It’s, like, ‘No! You’re representing us! It has to be perfect!’ And that’s not how it works! Women should be allowed to make bad movies.” And women should be allowed to write bad movies, especially if they continue to return with material that has matured in scope, as Cody has done over the last six years.
Alice Shindelar writes and lives in Brooklyn, NY. Contact the Author: contributor@MoviesIDidntGet.com