By Mique Watson
It’s always a refreshing experience to see films with female protagonists; films which tell a woman’s story–the kind of story that is unique to the female lived experience. These female-focused stories are just as valid as the ones that men have, and we see male stories embodied in films constantly. Being a man is not the default state of what it means to be human, and thus, it is very welcome to see films that have female protagonists whose roles could have easily been played by a man; and not the stereotypical damsel in distress, or incompetent individual–but a strong, capable, and deep individual that we see men being portrayed as time and time again.
This article will compare and contrast two films; one that definitely fits this bill, and one that thinks it does–yet completely fails and embarrasses its female protagonists in the process.
“Spy” is brought to you by Director Paul Feig, starring recurring collaborator, Melissa McCarthy (from “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat”–the later, being a film which wasn’t too sympathetic to the women it featured) whose comedic timing and likeability are impeccable. In this film, (which was also written by Mr. Fieg), we have the brilliant opportunity to laugh with McCarthy’s delightful self, and not at her (which has been the case of quite a number of her other films).
Coupled with that, is how refreshingly subversive this film is as it confronts the very real issues that many women today face, for example, the issue of self-confidence and doubt both self-doubt and the doubt that others have towards you. From the opening titles alone, one is led to believe that this would be some typical spoof of a James Bond movie; the film opens up with suave, dashing, and capable Jude Law being assisted by McCarthy’s Susan Cooper via a remote transmitter.
Then comes the unique and welcome subversion when a series of events (including an awesome female villain played by one of Feig’s former collaborators, Rose Byrne) leads to Susan being given the opportunity to prove herself, despite her initial self-doubts from all the gaslighting she incurred from those around her (especially from Law’s character, which you might not detect at first due to the aforementioned suave).
This film cleverly undercuts tropes and subverts expectations in how McCarthy’s femininity is used as a joke (as demonstrated by how her various secret spy identities fall into the following categories: single mom, lonely fat spinster, crazy cat lady). With this, the film actively goes against this notion that an actress of this age and appearance should look like this; it ultimately deems these stereotypes as an unfair representation of women as a whole.
It’s made very clear in this film that we owe women much more respect; the male characters in the film underestimate the women, and this leads to their own downfall in multiple scenes; meanwhile Susan overcomes her self-doubt, and reveals–to both herself and those around her–just how truly competent she is, in the most rewarding and gut-busting hilarious ways.
Feig’s intelligent, understanding, and absolutely hilarious approach isn’t limited to just the women in this film. The men here also emerge from this comedy with their dignity intact and learn to treat women as their equals, first and foremost. A film in which a female protagonist learns her worth and capabilities as a person, and doesn’t end up seeking that self-validation from a man? Sign me up!
“Spy” is a terrific showcase of how gender-swapping characters; casting women in roles traditionally played by men, gives way for new levels of storytelling and complexity that doesn’t come at the expense of good humor, and fun action scenes. This brand of social commentary, that treats women with respect and doesn’t demonize men in the process (I’m looking at YOU, “Ghostbusters” 2016 edition!) is absolutely welcome!
Now we have a film that thought it was doing this same thing, but completely fell flat on its sad face, let’s talk about 2019’s “The Hustle”, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson.
This is the horrific woman-hating horror that is “The Hustle”; spectacularly misogynistic and does the exact opposite of what it thinks it’s doing. In spite of the different title, this film is a remake of the 1988 slapstick comedy, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. The 1988 version centres on two men; Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine), and his newfound competitor, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), who try to ease their rivalry by placing a bet on who among the two of them will be the first to swindle a young naive American heiress (Glenne Headly) out of fifty thousand dollars.
“The Hustle”, director Chris Addison seems to be joining the bandwagon of filmmakers who embrace all the sexist depictions of women in films that are so tiresome at this point. There isn’t a single laugh to be found in this alleged comedy about Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway) a glamorous, seductive British woman who cons gullible men out of their money. Into glossy, wealthy, meticulous world enters Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson), a crass and jokey Australian woman who has a penchant for swindling. In spite of their different methods, the two con artists soon put their heads together in the South of France for the ultimate score — conning a young naive tech billionaire.
Every single attempt at humor comes at the expense of these women: Isn’t Wilson too blonde and dumb to pull off a con? Isn’t Hathaway too alluring to have a brain? Isn’t it hilarious how one can put on a fancy dress and be mistaken for a round bauble? Wouldn’t it be funny if these women-only THOUGHT they were smart, but are proven to be stupid and blinded by their desire for a man? That’s literally the conclusion of this film.
“The Hustle”, director Chris Addison seems to be joining the bandwagon of filmmakers who embrace all the sexist depictions of women in films that are so tiresome at this point.”
The film ends the same way the 1988 version ended; with the two con artists who thought they were taking advantage of a naive, innocent person ending up being the butt of the joke. However, in the 1988 film, it’s two men who get conned at the end, with the heiress they intended to con being framed as the smartest one at the end. The 2019 film ends in a similar fashion, with the “naive” tech billionaire fooling these two women who are too blinded-by-their-desire-for-a-man, to realize what’s happening.
All the good that comes with having two female protagonists get negated by how these two women are–throughout the whole film–ridiculed for their gender. They conform to all the nastiest stereotypes that women are usually subjected to in the film. The entirety of Rebel Wilson’s character is about making fun of her as a caricature of “the funny fat woman”; from her weight to her ‘stupidity’, to her wardrobe literally being likened to that of a trash bag and Christmas tree bauble…and for all supposed reason being tossed out at the end because of her borderline unreasonable love for a man.
The entirety of Anne Hathaway’s character is about her playing a completely exaggerated femme fatale, with a horrendous accent and a wardrobe that, if sold, could probably cover 10 years’ worth of rent for my apartment. In this, Hathaway is literally nothing more than a stock character, depicted as dangerous and mysterious (yet comes off as completely transparent), her attempts at conveying seduction and charm–in the pursuit of acquiring a man–are hilarious for all the wrong reason.
The film utterly fails to appreciate that she goes out of her way to be empathetic to Wilson’s incompetent character–in how she takes her under her wing and trains her–and instead portrays this training sequence in a way that reduces both these women as objects of derision. Shallow, callous pettiness between the two women is also a source of supposed amusement. This crass, lazy film trots out all the worst troped about women tearing each other apart over a man. Hathaway and Wilson are depicted as total opposites who compete for the same average-looking-but-with-a-heart-of-gold tech millionaire.
If anything, “The Hustle” is a witless showcase of how our culture sees women in a very black-or-white way; either too dumb or too smart, absolutely modelesque or frumpy; competent or incompetent… yet still, fails to observe the complexities and humanity in them. Not only does this film condone these archaic depictions of women; it celebrates them and takes delight and amusement in how both these women lose in the end and are ridiculed for it.
All that being said; women are PEOPLE. They go through the same human experiences that men do, and it’s tragic that many films nowadays still fail to comprehend this. Perhaps the best way to convince studios to step-up their writing game would be to go out and support films like “Spy”; and maybe give films like “The Hustle” a pass. Or better yet, support films with female directors! You can start with this list that I wrote here.