Friday, October 30, 2015

Saucy Sue, Rebellious Betty and Other Examples of the Women-Child

Lauren Duca examined film comedy’s woman-child in a Huffington Post article titled "The Rise Of The Woman-Child."  The main point of the article was to criticize a perceived double standard in the treatment of the woman-child versus the treatment of the man-child.  Duca wrote, "[W]hile the man-child has flourished for decades, the female counterpart finds it near impossible to garner sympathy."

Duca had no trouble finding support for her claim.  Anna Kendrick, who played a woman-child in Happy Christmas (2014), said, "If you’re a female, then you should have your shit together and you should be figuring it out.  With men it’s just like, 'Oh, you know, he’s just still a frat boy at heart, and it’s no big deal.’"  Paul Fieg, who directed Bridesmaids, said, "Classically, male characters have been able to get away with that more in the past.  There's this weird thing ingrained in our culture that it's no fun to watch a woman out of control.  You know, versus with a guy out of control, where the idea is that's just what they do."

The fact, plain and simple, is that Duca, Kendrick and Fieg are wrong.  The man-child did not flourish for decades while the woman-child was shunned.  The women-child has been in full view and full force through the entire history of film.  She can be traced back to comedy films that entertained audiences more than a hundred years ago.  I wrote about this subject in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  Here is an excerpt from my book:
A prevalent idea was that women, by their wildly irrational nature, were disruptive and needed to be contained.  Saucy Sue (1909) was the story of a mischievous country girl who is invited to stay with her rich uncle in the big city.  Her lively antics create problems for her uncle, who quickly sends her back home.  In 1910, Mabel Normand starred in a series of "Rebellious Betty" comedies for Vitagraph.  Betty was described in promotional literature as "a mischievous and willful tomboy, who shrinks at nothing so long as she can get her own way."  The action in the first Betty comedy was described as follows: "[Betty] succeeds in upsetting half a dozen people, destroys an artist's masterpiece, jumps upon and rides away with somebody else's bicycle, which she afterwards abandons for a horse, and finally knocks off the head of the butler."  Normand later played a similar role in the Biograph comedy Tomboy Bessie (1912).  Bessie wields a slingshot to shoot rocks at chickens.  At one point, she steals a bicycle and crashes it.
I continued this discussion in a recent article (which can be found here).
A trend developed in 1917 with comedy features that centered on young women.  The plots either had to do with a spoiled, rebellious heiress who has to be tamed for the plot to reach a satisfying resolution or a working girl who falls in love with an heir or a nobleman and has to overcome class conflicts to live happily ever after.  The critics clearly identified the bad traits of the spoiled heiress.  June Caprice's heiress in The Mischief Maker is "always impulsive;" Ann Murdock's heiress in Please Help Emily is "willful;" Jackie Saunders' heiress in Betty Be Good is "impulsive and mischievous;" and Margarita Fischer's heiress in Molly, Go Get 'Em is "irrepressible."  These traits are the reason that these young women are always getting themselves into trouble.  It takes the right man to bring out the loving and steady woman dormant inside these wild and bratty girls. 
For anyone who wants to know more about film comedy’s woman-child, I recommend that you read my forthcoming book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.

For most of film history, moviegoers have reacted to the man-child and the woman-child in much the same way.  They have not unconditionally accepted the man-child’s bad behavior.  They have only maintained sympathy for the man-child if they could see that he was willing to better himself.

The modern woman-child displeases audiences because she avoids the next important stage of human development - intimacy.  Adam Sandler's man-child always gets the girl at the end, but his female counterparts risk the wrath of feminists if their personal growth leads them into an intimate relationship with a man.  The feminist edict is that there be no man and certainly no marriage.  Duca, herself, made it clear that she resented the idea that a woman's problems could be "solved with a white dress."

Sonja Bennett, writer and star of the woman-child comedy Preggoland, said, "The message of [Preggoland] is not that when you’re a woman and you’ve got your shit together or become a better version of yourself that means you want to be married or have children."

So, if the woman doesn't get her man, what does she get?  Duca wrote of Kendrick’s Happy Christmas character:
By the end of the film, she hasn’t sworn off drinking, found a job or even clearly gotten over her ex.  Her arc ends inconclusively. . . Jenny is left in limbo, a strange space, considering film usually insists on redeeming its characters in 90 minutes or less.
The film’s writer and director, Joe Swanberg, said, "It’s a tricky narrative arc to leave the character at the end of the movie in roughly the same place they started."

Traditionally, marriage and family were the ultimate goals for a man and a woman.  The natural role of God's creatures is to reach sexual maturity so that they can couple with the opposite sex and create the next generation.  It is the circle of life.  It is fine if you want to get your shit together to become an insurance adjuster or a real estate agent, but we play a more crucial role in society when we devote ourselves to being a good parent.  I know that some people hate this idea, but I see it as pointless, contrived and arrogant for men and women to put themselves above the dictates of nature.  You have a choice – chose nature or limbo.

The limbo ending is not fair to the people who have paid money to see a film.  The nature of storytelling demands a resolution.  A story is not a story without a resolution.  This rule stands firm, which means that it cannot be subject to feminist notions.

Others resent the films that show women making any responsible decision at all.  To them, the idea of the protagonist achieving a successful marriage or a successful career is unrealistic and, therefore, offensive.  Jenny Slate, the star of the woman-child comedy Obvious Child, said, "I think that there are a lot of women who grew up with perfect rom-com leading ladies in the ‘90s, who are like, 'Yeah, that’s not the way we see ourselves.'  We see all of it, and want to show all of it, and we don’t want to be told that we can’t be leaders just because we're lazy or we're messy sometimes.  Sometimes everybody is lazy and messy, and it's okay."

Messiness is definitely a theme of the film.  The film includes several crap jokes, including the leading man stepping in dog shit.  Key scenes take place in bathrooms.  Slate is dumped by her boyfriend in a bathroom. . .

she meets her new boyfriend in a bathroom. . .

and she learns that she’s pregnant in a bathroom.

The film opens with Slate, who plays a stand-up comedian, telling a crowd of people in a club about her messiness: 
I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants.  And, by the way, what all vaginas do to all underpants, okay?  There is no woman who ends her day with, like, a clean pair of underpants that look like they've ever even come from a store, okay?  They look like little bags that have fallen face down in, like, a tub of cream cheese, and then, like, commando-crawled their way out.  And then, like, carabinered up, like, into a crotch.  Like, they're not items that are for anyone to see.  But now, I'm just like, "Whatever."  You know, I have a human vagina.
Freud would say that this toilet fixation suggests that the young woman suffered development difficulties at the anal stage.

Being lazy and messy will not get you far in life, believe me.  And I personally do want to see a film that celebrates a willful loser just so that the willful losers of the world don't have to feel bad about themselves.  That is not the job of comedy despite what Slate and other modern comedians say.

Slate misunderstands the role of the hero if she thinks that the hero, in his ideal and admirable form, is part of an evil plot to make the film-going public feel inadequate or outright useless.  Whether or not a person is useless is their own personal choice.  We have no reason to blame the hero for this.  The problem may be that we have become so enthralled with the anti-hero that we forgot what a hero is exactly.  The hero is aspirational.  The hero is a role model.  By his example, the hero is able to guide us on the right path and help us to succeed in the world. 

The traditional comedy film managed to include, amid the foul ups and mishaps, a message of aspiration.  The idea was that, even though we are not perfect and make mistakes, we will still succeed if we work hard, be brave, and never give up.  The modern comedy is vastly different.  It tells the viewer that it is alright for them to mess up and they have no need at all to become a better person.  It instructs them to laugh at their chronic laziness and revel in their perpetual drunkenness.  The objective of these films, pure and simple, is to have the viewer embrace his or her foolishness.  But it is a false message.  Believe me, Seth Rogen would not be a wealthy man if he really was a fool.  Of course, a lazy, selfish, messed up person will respond favorably if he is told that he is fine just the way he is.  Hollywood is an increasingly effective enabler that tells imperfect and ineffective people exactly what it is that they want to hear.

So, does the woman-child develop at all during the course of this new type of film?  Duca wrote, "[W]ith the woman-child, there is usually a series of people who shape her journey.  Resolution comes from building a sense of self through a community of people rather than just one man."  Hilary Brougher, a Columbia University film professor, agreed with this idea.  She said, "For women, happily ever after used to be the guy.  But one of the edgier things coming out of this is that happily ever after is a group of imperfect people who understand and support you."

In other words, women are being told by filmmakers that they have a full and happy life as long as they have friends.  A bunch of screwy friends surely help to get the heroine laughs in a sitcom, but most women know deep down in their hearts that screwy friends are no replacement for the ideal mate.

I should note that Obvious Child does end with the girl getting the guy (Jake Lacy).  But, although both the guy and the girl are close to 30 years old, neither of them is quite ready to grow up.  They don't eliminate the possibility of adult commitments, but they make it clear that this is something for them in the future.  Their answer to the beckoning call of adulthood is, essentially, "Some day, not now."


These films put forth an opposition to marriage, prosperity and ideals that is, in the end, just bratty opposition to adulthood.

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