Getting Women’s Stories Right

Obvious ChildBack in the late 70s, I went to a conference on women and the law. Most of it was panels on important legal issues of the day, but one night they had a show that included a comedian.

She told jokes about the trials and tribulations of having your period, including a hilarious bit on inserting a tampon for the first time. The women in the audience were on the verge of rolling in the aisles. A lot of the men squirmed uncomfortably.

That was a very liberating moment. Women were not only capable of being funny, they could tell great jokes about female lives.

It came back to me as I watched the opening scene in the new movie Obvious Child

The main character, Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate), is doing her stand-up routine in a dive in Brooklyn. And she’s telling jokes about what a vagina does to underwear.

I’m happy to report that the men in the on-screen audience were laughing (though not the boyfriend who was about to dump her).

Obvious Child is a very liberating romantic comedy even before we get to the abortion part of the story. But the fact that an abortion is at the heart of the story is a powerful statement.

The movie is set in the present day, but the life it depicts is not a major jump from the life I was living in the 70s. Casual sex was common back then, no matter what your parents tell you. And abortion was legal; Roe v. Wade came down in 1973. Much of the story could have happened to me or friends of mine. (That it didn’t happen to me is a tribute to my mother. She started preaching the gospel of always using birth control when you have sex when I was about seven or eight and it took.)

But while the story Obvious Child tells wouldn’t have surprised me in the 70s, seeing a movie back then that reflected my life and feminist ideals would have amazed me. Movies didn’t do that in those days. I can’t think of any movies from that period that truly reflected women’s lives. The most feminist movie I can come up with from the 70s is Alien. And it’s only feminist because Sigourney Weaver played a role that had been originally written for a man.

Actually, I can’t think of a lot of movies nowadays that do a great job of depicting women. I mean, we’re still talking about the Bechdel test, which is pretty damn minimal (there must be two women who talk to each other about something other than men). Gravity wasn’t as liberating as Alien, Sandra Bullock’s great performance as an astronaut notwithstanding.

I have seen a couple of indie foreign films lately that do justice to women’s lives – Ida (about a young woman about to take her vows as a nun who learns that she was the daughter of Jews killed during the war) and In Bloom, about young women coming of age in Georgia. We’re getting more women filmmakers and they’re doing stories that come out of female experience.

But the best ones tend to be films with limited releases. I know we have “chick flicks,” but an awful lot of those are movies from a male-approved female point of view. They don’t have anything to do with my life or my knowledge of women. And much as I love a story with a kick-ass women in it, few of those are really satisfying. There is a reason why I spend a lot of my screen time re-watching Buffy (the TV series, not the movie).

Obvious Child is a great exception: a romantic comedy that gets women’s lives right. It’ll be nice when movies like it are the rule.

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Getting Women’s Stories Right — 15 Comments

  1. Thelma and Louise seems to have literally killed the development of a woman-centered movie, that might even be a comedy, that isn’t about getting married (1991) — which concludes with the two women driving themselves off a cliff.

    Soon the template becomes When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). In Hollywood at least, the feminist backlash of the Reagan 80’s was complete. No more (1980) Nine to Five, or Orlando (1992).

    I can’t stand the stuff of women’s ‘buddy’ movies or so called romcom these days, and haven’t been able to stomach them in decades. I will check out one or another now and again via netflix just to be sure I know what I’m talking about though.

  2. From what you’re saying, it sounds like they are substituting abortion for the usual cancer that seems to plague “women friendship movies.”

  3. It seems to me that most of the women-centered comedies I’ve seen recently are about friends lying to or manipulating each other, or competing with each other! Or about a new relationship causing friendship rifts …

    I’m shocked to hear there was such sex going on in the late 70s, Nancy. Honestly I didn’t have sex until 9 months before Meredith was born (she’s 21) … Women were absolutely not having sex like that. You are making it up.

  4. I have to admit my favorite ‘feminist’ movie is still “Westward the Women”, circa 1951. I showed it to some much younger friends and they were amazed that a movie showed such strong women ‘way back then. Yes, their purpose was to get married, but they kicked ass on the way there. It’s a good story of strength from survival. The misogynist trail boss learns a good lesson.
    I have read of “Obvious Child” and intend to see it. I’m glad you gave it kudos.

  5. Thanks for the review. I’m planning to see this movie with my teen daughter.
    PS It’s Bechdel not Bechdal – a great artist in her own right. She became famous with Fun Home, but I actually prefer her DTWOF strip.

  6. I recall early in the 90’s after another of the cyclic eras in which it is announced that women are now the powers and moulders of Hollywood, in the wake of Sue Mengers as talent agent, Mira Nair, Callie Khouri, Jane Campion, Susan Seidleman, Penny Marshall, Amy Heckerling as directors, Sherri Lansing as studio head, some male Hollywood director was on our flagship prime time public radio talk show, speaking with great relief and glee, that “finally men have taken Hollywood back.”

    Now notice the films these women directors did: none of them are the studio blockbuster sorts, yet even that a dozen women directed films that received attention, critical and box office, within a few years, was considered, Women are in Charge. And that was so mean to the mens.

    I phoned in during the call in segment of the interview to register my disagreement, but my call didn’t get through the screener.

    Love, C.

    • It’s usually when an institution reaches 30 percent women that men begin to complain that it’s “run by women.” But your Hollywood example sounds like a lot smaller percentage than that. Can’t say I ever noticed that women were running the movie business — at least, not judging by the films that got made back then.

  7. Ida, Obvious Child and In Bloom have all been my picks at festivals recently. Obvious Child is probably the most upbeat of the bunch though; I thought the ending was just beautiful – especially given how sensitive the subject is. I did roll my eyes a bit at the opening scene, because I got a little tired of the same humour in Girls (there is a lot of the same sensibility as Girls, and a trace of Frances Ha) but Obvious Child turned out to be more charming and sensitively drawn by the end. It’s not a way of telling that story or presenting those characters that I’ve seen before.
    Ida was gorgeously shot and very affecting (by a male writer/director), especially the relationship between Ida and her aunt. I had some issues with how In Bloom used their characters, but it was an interesting look at that culture, and that time, and the young actresses were fantastic.

    I always try to seek out female film-makers at festivals – and definitely female protagonists – but it’s rarely a huge selection. I just saw Rhymes For Young Ghouls, which has its problems but features a great female protagonist, set in a First Nation tribe in the 70s, and from recent years, non-English films like Lore, Miss Bala, The Patience Stone, and May in Summer are all worth watching if you can find them. One of my favourite films in the last few years about unexpected female friendship (be warned, it’s R-rated for a reason in one section, but entirely necessary for the plot and character) is Starlet, which I think is currently on Netflix.

  8. I’ll have to check out Starlet. I’ve found it more and more difficult to find movies I want to see, so I appreciate any suggestions.

    I haven’t watched Girls, so the beginning of Obvious Child was refreshing for me. Though that’s probably why it sent me back to my first experience with a feminist comedian — I haven’t been keeping up.