“Marriage Story”: A Feminist Fairy Tale

By Liz Singh

“Marriage Story” is actually a tale about a divorce – that of two successful theatre artists, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Initially, the film appears to be entirely Charlie’s story but without Nicole, there would be no movie. In the beginning, he is unable to see his wife for who she really is but he grows to see her so clearly that he can fully appreciate the extent of what he’s lost. That theme – of appreciating women as fully formed human beings, equal to their male partners and counterparts – is what makes “Marriage Story” a feminist love story.

Nicole and Charlie are both members of a theatre company – he the celebrated director and she the lead actress, his muse. Fans of the creator may recognize that dynamic as the one between Noah Baumbach and his real-life partner Greta Gerwig herself an actress cum director. As with so many husband-wife collaborations, she was until recently seen as little more than a pretty face supporting her husband’s vision and ambitions. It’s not an uncommon dynamic in Hollywood – Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan come to mind. Their collaboration “Wildfire” was seen as Dano’s film despite the fact that Kazan not only co-wrote but produced.

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Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story (2019) © Netflix

Recently, Gerwig has revealed herself to be not only Baumbach’s collaborator but she has transformed herself into his competition. Her sophomore effort, this year’s “Little Women” in which she repeatedly reminds us that for women, “marriage is an economic proposition” was both wildly popular and critically acclaimed.

It makes sense that a feminist fairy tale end not with a marriage but with a divorce. Marriage has not been a kind institution for women.

“Marriage Story” is not a flashy film – none of Noah Baumbach’s movies are – but it is profoundly relatable. In some ways, it’s his most humble, and therefore most personal, film. Writing of this calibre requires true soul searching and the willingness to hold yourself accountable.  Whereas in “The Squid and the Whale”, the main character and Baumbach’s surrogate is a victim of circumstance, struggling to survive his parents’ divorce, Charlie is the architect of his own suffering.

In the opening scenes, we listen as Charlie describes what he loves about Nicole and then Nicole tells us what she loves about Charlie. What we see on screen is more informative than the narration. It’s clear even from the first moments of the film that Charlie neither sees nor appreciates Nicole. At one point, he turns the lights off while she’s still in the room under the guise of trying to save on electricity. At another he fails to notice that she’s left to clean up a mess on her own. Charlie may love Nicole but he is also oblivious to her.

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Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story (2019) © Netflix

It makes sense that a feminist fairy tale end not with a marriage but with a divorce. Marriage has not been a kind institution for women. Historically, it marked the moment when a woman went from being the property of her father to being the property of her husband. We still give a nod to that archaic notion by having fathers give away the bride at the wedding. She was now considered a member of another family and if that family was an unhappy one then that was her unhappy fate. As women began to join the workforce and were no longer legally, socially and economically reliant on their husbands, marriage has become more and more of a choice, one that less and fewer women are making.

“Marriage Story” is a true feminist fairy tale in the sense that by the end of the film, this is what Nicole has achieved. Although she has lost the love of the man she married, she has won his appreciation and his respect.

It is Charlie who grows and changes over the course of the film but the change that he makes is in the degree to which he sees his ex-wife for all that she is and could be. Nicole’s arc is one of discovering self-confidence but she has long been aware of her own potential and talent. The way in which she changes is that she relinquishes her need to have Charlie recognize those things as well so that when he does, it is already several moments too late – she’s moved on.

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Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson in Marriage Story (2019) © Netflix

Every ambitious woman in the audience will cheer a tiny internal cheer when towards the end of the film, Charlie once again underestimates the scope of Nicole’s achievements and she gently corrects him, almost as a throwaway. There are several points at which we watch the mountain of regret on Charlie’s shoulders grow but this is a particularly sweet one. Nicole is no longer willing to be taken for granted or overlooked. As she shares with one lover during another take-charge moment, she’s living a whole new way now.

At the heart of every feminist woman’s dreams is the desire to be seen and appreciated as a full human being with all the potential, intelligence and capacity of a man. “Marriage Story” is a true feminist fairy tale in the sense that by the end of the film, this is what Nicole has achieved. Although she has lost the love of the man she married, she has won his appreciation and his respect. Charlie makes a journey that a lot of women wish their husbands would make and that many feminists wish men, in general, would make – a journey towards recognizing his female partner as exactly that: a peer, an equal, a collaborator.

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