January 10, 2016

Mopping Up an Androcentric Hollywood

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PSA: Sexism still exists, especially in the entertainment industry! After watching Carrie Fisher, the actress who starred in the original Star Wars trilogy reprise the role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, viewers attacked her appearance across social media and stated that she is “too old to be acting.” After watching Brad Pitt, an actor with gray hair who has clearly aged since his first hints of stardom in The Big Short, viewers hailed him as “the rising star of political cinema”. Quite the discrepancy, if I do say so myself. To be fair, I don’t think any actors should be judged for their looks, but rather for their job, their acting. However, this seems to be an idealistic and unpopular view.

Fisher addressed the reductive and insulting comments about her age and perceived attractiveness on social media with a Twitter post of her own, in which she stated: “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy biproducts of time and/or DNA.” The story deservedly has garnered attention from both major and minor media sources. However, this story is being told from a specific angle; Carrie’s strong responses are meant to inspire readers and while they fulfill that job, the conversation should not end with the reverence of one woman’s retorts.

The vile comments about Carrie Fisher’s appearance highlight the plight of female actors in the movie business. Remember the Bechdel Test (or was that just a passing trend)? While it is far from comprehensive or flawless in its execution, the Bechdel Test indicts the low-grade representation of women in film. According to Fusion, 45% of movies that were released in 2015 passed the test. Though that may seem like a high percentage, we must ask how much traction these movies have. Of the eight films nominated for the 2015 Oscar Awards, two of the films passed the Bechdel Test and none of the films were female centric. This year may be a little better with many critics agreeing that the movie Carol, which chronicles the friendship and blooming romance of two women in the 1950s, is a major contender for both an Oscar nominee and win. Another female centered movie that is not as widely hypothesized for a nominee, but perhaps should be, is Joy.

Joy, released Christmas Day, is a holiday miracle. Starring Jennifer Lawrence as the brazen titular character, Joy’s opening scene alerts us that the movie is “inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.” That one woman is Joy Mangano, the trailblazer who invented the Miracle Mop and subsequently built her own business empire. Success wasn’t a swift journey for either the fictional or real life Joy, however.

The movie, narrated by Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd), follows Joy from her early beginnings as a precocious child inventor of paper toys and dog collars through her years as a middle-aged woman with broken dreams. Joy is the matriarch of her family. Unfortunately, this position has proved itself to be more overwhelming than empowering because she is expected to rescue everyone, including her own parents. Her mother (Virginia Madsen), who has never recovered from her divorce from Joy’s father, spends her days locked in her room watching soap operas. Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro), is largely unsupportive of Joy and her lifestyle, yet calls upon Joy whenever he is in financial straits. Joy also has two children of her own to support while her ex-husband lives in her basement and does not contribute to the family financially. With an inundation of bills and demands, Joy does not have the time or resources to pursue her dream of becoming an inventor. That is, until the ordinary meets the extraordinary and the grueling household task of mopping glass and cutting her hand leads Joy to envision a self-wringing mop.

Viewers who came to the movies expecting to see some great on-screen chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (who plays Neil Walker, a television executive for the Home Shopping network) will be sorely disappointed. In fact, if one did not know any better, one would think that this is Lawrence and Cooper’s first time working together. Their lack of rapport in Joy is not at all reminiscent of the affinity they had for each other in Silver Linings Playbook and Serena. Perhaps their restrained relationship is not completely their fault, however. Cooper does play Lawrence’s boss for the majority of the movie, a relationship that does not always lend itself to camaraderie. More likely, though, is that the relationships portrayed in Joy are simply the result of lazy writing.

There is no doubt that many of the characters are mere pawns in director David O. Russell’s attempt at a modern day fairytale. Rudy, for instance, is simply the evil father with no depth to him. After Joy goes bankrupt, he laments that it is his fault because he “gave her the confidence that she was more than an unemployed housewife.” Meanwhile, after she becomes successful, he leeches off her, without so much as an apology. The only characters that are not written one dimensionally are Joy and her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Through her painstaking journey, Joy reflects humanity in all its paradoxes with her vulnerability and strength. Tony is equally complicated; he may be irresponsible and infuriating at times, but he does not adhere to the quintessential evil ex-husband role that viewers would expect him to. In fact, he is one of Joy’s biggest supporters and even arranges an interview for her with one of his influential friends. Their relationship as compassionate partners is refreshing.

While this dynamic characterization is not pervasive in Joy, the movie’s effort to represent minorities is an impressive and worthwhile reparation. Joy’s marriage to a Venezuelan man is woven so naturally into the movie, but viewers are aware that the exhibition of biracial relationships in Hollywood movies is not a regular practice (and when it does occur, it is often accompanied by an exoticizing of actors of color). The same praise can be given to the casting of Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend, Jackie. Polanco, best known for her portrayal of Daya in Orange Is the New Black, may simply be seen to some as Joy’s sidekick in this movie; she is certainly capable of bigger roles. But Polanco’s humor and talent is not eclipsed by her supporting role and her inclusion in a tale of staunch female friendship not only speaks to her talent, but to the diverse nature of representation in Joy. Finally, the melding of Joy Mangano’s story into a film is an exercise of radical representation in itself. Steve Jobs has already had six films made about his life. One may argue that Apple is more relevant to our lives than the Miracle Mop. While this is admittedly true (no one’s typing on their mops in Olin), it is also true that the lives of female inventors, engineers, and scientists are not presented in films as often as those of their male counterparts. Thus, Joy presents us with what it still a radical idea: maybe there is something worthwhile about women beyond the symmetricality of their faces and the curvature of their bodies after all.

Watching Joy is somewhat indulgent. It requires you to remember why you first started watching movies in the first place. Maybe you wanted to enter a new dimension. Maybe it was to feel good, to believe in the possibilities of life, to experience some sort of magic. Many of the stories that used to feel magical to us as children, specifically fairytales, have only become problematic and unrealistic in our disillusioned minds (I’m looking at you, Disney). Joy is a reminder that the greatest rags to riches stories can actually occur. They may not be the norm — in fact, they are far from the norm, but they do exist. The American Dream was not always dead.

Gwen Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gfa28@cornell.edu.

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