Why Weak Male Characters Are Bad For Women

(The following post should be read in conjunction with Shana Mlawski’s oft-linked article, “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women.”)

If you’ve had any access to online or conventional media in the continental U.S. for the past 60 days, you’ve seen an ad for the upcoming bro movie She’s Out Of My League:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvYmZ5IA1hM

On the surface, a forgettable sex comedy. Adorable schlub lands major-league hottie; usual series of pratfalls and embarrassing incidents; he rises to the occasion and proves himself worthy of her love. No bankable stars and plenty of references (the TSA, iPhones) that will hopefully seem dated in ten years. The tone’s a little more crass than usual, but no worse than anything we’d see in the Eighties. Or Nineties. Or Aughts.

Of course, I liked it much better the first time I saw it, when it was called (500) Days of Summer.

“Whoa, hold the iPhone,” you’re doubtless saying. “(500) Days of Summer was an indie romantic comedy much beloved by hep movie critics. She’s Out Of My League is a derivative pile of gags. How can you even compare the two?”

(Warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW for (500) Days of Summer, although if you’re that worried about a romantic comedy being spoiled you might want to change your expectations of the genre. I may also unwittingly spoil some of She’s Out of My League, but, not having seen it, that says more about the corrugation of the plot than my skills as a critic)

Follow me here:

A., male, age 23-59, meets B., a female, age 21 to 28. A. lives a routine life which the audience is encouraged to find sad. B. is gorgeous, warm and free-spirited. B’s love and encouragement help A. to get out of his shell. Eventually, B. departs A’s life, leaving him happier and wiser.

Not only is that She’s Out of My League and (500) Days of Summer, but it’s also Autumn in New York, Sweet November, A Walk to Remember, Force of Nature and Love Story. It’s also Annie Hall and Bringing Up Baby. The AV Club identified this type as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she doesn’t even need to be particularly manic or pixieish. You could argue that Maribel Verdu’s character in Y Tu Mama Tambien fills the same role.

annie-hall

I'm going to write and direct a movie where a beautiful free spirit falls in love with me, if that's okay.

So the ending of (500) Days of Summer (which is revealed in the first reel, by the way – not foreshadowed but explicitly stated) does not defy the conventions of romantic comedy. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl leaves as often as she stays – often due to death (Autumn in New York, Sweet November, Love Story), but not always.

In any case, (500) Days of Summer and She’s Out of My League both came steaming from the same mold: the Woman As Liberator. The woman enters the man’s life, shakes up his perceptions, usually has sex with him and just as usually vanishes. (500) Days of Summer is a particularly artful example of the trope. It’s well-written, with clever dialogue, good music, memorable characters and the neat narrative device of a non-linear storyline. And it stars two indie screen darlings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. She’s Out of My League stars an obvious sexual fantasy and a guy you might remember from Knocked Up. Characters are mean for no obvious reason and every joke calls ahead before arriving.

krysten-ritter

Oh, now you're playing coy.

(In fact, can I take a moment to comment on the love interest’s dark-haired sarcastic friend? In the trailer, we hear her yell at a man for very politely asking that the blonde not use her phone on the plane. Two things: (1) he’s right; phones aren’t good for planes; that interference you hear sometimes when your cell phone is too close to a speaker?; imagine hearing that in your headset while you’re trying to get directions from the FAA on which of LaGuardia’s two notoriously crowded runways to use; and (2) what kind of response is “what are you, a plane doctor?” even Joss Whedon would turn his nose up at that one)

She’s Out of My League is a worse film in every criterion that matters. But it’s effectively the same story.

22 Comments on “Why Weak Male Characters Are Bad For Women”

  1. Sylvia #

    I have a problem with the whole ‘league’ concept in general. It has nothing to do with the woman and who she is as a person and everything to do with how she is perceived by other people. It also falls into what you’re saying is the problem with these two movies, the women have no sense of agency. She is not allowed to want things that other people perceive are outside her league. She is not allowed to want and thus present any sense of who she actually is as a person.

    So what if the hot blonde likes the nerdy hockey fan? If she likes his company, then let her persue him if that’s what she wants. Although, this does raise the question, to me anyway, does the nerdy hockey fan like anything about this girl aside from her looks? Because that takes away from her as a person also.

     
  2. RiderIon #

    I would argue that the asteroid in Armageddon choose to kill Bruce Willis as it was able to accomplish what no Earthly terrorist could: killing Bruce Willis.

     
  3. Harold #

    Its also not got for women. If the nerdy loser guy wants the hot blond, and the super action hero guy wants the hot blond, who wants the “ugly” girl. Or instead of “ugly” you could put “non-perfect looking”, because thats how our society views women. Looking at Jennifers Body, you can see how Hollywood can’t even cast a non-attractive girl for the non-attractive girl role. If Amanda Seyfried is the average girl, then an ugly girl would be the best looking girl in any school.

    I don’t know how ANY girl in todays modern age can relate to even the nerdiest girls in movies. Not an ounce of fat, bad hair, daddy issues, mother issues, rent, bad weather, or anything real women worry about. But thats an old argument. The only thing in our modern culture that gives us this are documentaries really.

    I guess 500 days expects women to fill in the gaps of Summers life with their own biographies and have these 500 days allowed to be inserted into it.

    But soon we have to not expect our entertainment to show human life in ALL its complexity. Stories that have 1,000,000 directions like our lives are called unfocussed for a reason. But it would be nice to not have to fill in the blanks or stories. I guess thats what books are for.

     
  4. Greg #

    I think that (500) Days of Summer is actually trying to make the same point that you are about Summer. Since we only see it from the male perspective it has a bias. She never really fully wants to be with him originally, but through seeing him singing and being himself (or more of himself anyway), she becomes attracted to him. When they get together things become more like they were originally, causing her to lose interest in him. She doesn’t seem to actually like the same things he does anyway. Therefore she leaves him and happily marries someone else. He gets mad and realizes she isn’t his fantasy after all, but it is implied that he isn’t her’s either. When he meets the girl at the job interview, he acts on his fantasies rather than sitting on them. It is just a matter of perspective I suppose.

     
  5. donn #

    Speaking of agency and women in film, that was my biggest beef with the Watchmen movie. Laurie Jupiter was not only stripped of most of her character nuance, she wasn’t even allowed to have the realization that was the crux of the story on her own – it became a function of Dr. Manhattan’s magic revelatory finger probing her mind.

     
  6. Lefty01 #

    @ Donn
    I know right? They stripped everything out of Laurie’s character! Worse yet, they made her boring. It would be one thing is Laurie was some kind of happy ditz but she’s not. Laurie is a aggressive, over-sexualized, angry pragmatist who hates the alienation that comes even with dating Dr. Manhattan (i.e GOD.) The idea of gender agency is something never properly expressed even by most writers. Even writers I like deal women a bad hand in this game (I’m looking at you Chuck Palanhiuk!)

     
  7. Robin #

    Yeah, yeah, yeah we only see Toms side in 500 Days, but last summer I compared myself to Mr. Hansen in desire for the never truly attainable. His blindness shows a side we all experience at some point. The inequality and over thought put upon the other person who never fully exposes their self often kills the relationship. Unfortunately, The Magnetic Fields never soften the blow.

    Then again, aren’t movies with two deep and emotionally mature main characters a boring drag?

     
  8. Gab #

    I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it here. One thing I enjoyed about _(500) Days of Summer_ was how it made the male the hopeless romantic and the female the one rather against love- and not because she was holding out for someone else (which, I’d argue, makes her a romantic, nonetheless, just of a different nature), but because she didn’t believe in it. Typical rom-coms have crazy women-folk as the believers, and Manic Pixie Dreamgirls are usually dragging the men they change kicking and screaming into the relationship, or at least shock them into giving it a shot.

    So here’s my thing: I don’t really think Summer changes Tom’s views on love, or if she does, it’s not enough for them to alter his courses of action (after his grieving period over the loss of Summer is over, at least)- meaning in the end, he DOES ask out that girl in the waiting area, something he would have been at least moreally okay with before meeting Summer, even if he wasn’t emotionally confident enough. Any reasons for NOT asking that woman out would have been because of his own self-confidence, not his thoughts on love in general. He’s a romantic before and after his five-hundred days.

    Summer, however, does the 180- she GETS MARRIED, after all. So perhaps it’s a stretch, but I saw Tom as a Manic Pixie Dreamboy, of sorts, especially if taken from her perspective. Summer meets a guy that intrigues her, she takes a chance in spite of her previous notions of romance and love, and ends up changing those notions as a result of having been with him. I realize the movie is from Tom’s p.ov., but even so, none of this information is conjecture- we see it all happen.

     
  9. Tom P #

    I would argue that the women in romantic comedies tend to be shallowly written because the writer wants the women watching to be able to place herself in to that character. If you add too much background information, the women watching will start being able to say “that’s not like me” and it will take them out of the movie. Then they, along with the woman in the movie, can either fall for the male lead or hate the male lead… but at least they spent a moment connecting with someone in the movie. Even if it was false.

    Extend this to the most popular romantic thing of the moment. Isn’t the most brilliant part of Twilight that Stephanie Meyer made Bella (who is narrating the books, mind you) so devoid of real substance that women, who spend over 3,000 pages with her, can place themselves and their experiences in to this story? They either fall for the male lead (Team Edward) or hate him (Team Jacob) and in a real, fistfights over it kind of way.

    And I’m excited to discover that the male version of the ponytail and glasses is a pompadour and the propensity to make funny faces.

     
  10. ChristopherNYC #

    “You should know up front, this is NOT a love story”
    So, while I appericate the article I feel you missed the point altogether. This is not about men and women as the subject. This is about being human and how we position ourselves in the world in a particular way and create our own misery and joy. Tom’s expectations about life are laid out when the film begins and Summer as we see at the end is a brief moment of opening till he falls back to his blindess.

    Take everything you said in your article and remove 500 days of Summer and put Elizabethtown. You want to feel the industry sell bits of your soul then that is the movie.

     
  11. Joe S #

    “What does Tom do to attract Summer? Nothing.”

    But then, what does Summer do to attract Tom? Equally, nothing. Unless you count being rilly, rilly hawt, I suppose.

    There seems to be a double standard being applied here – it’s unfair to depict Tom winning the girl if he doesn’t work hard enough for it, but it’s OK that Summer gets him without any more than a flick of her hair?

     
  12. perich #

    @Joe: since the movie’s told from Tom’s perspective – like I said, it’s not called (9125) Days of Summer – I think it’s fair to put more of an emphasis on Tom’s efforts than Summer’s.

    Also, Summer does something: she asks him! POINT BLANK! if he likes her! and he lies! Sorry for the yelling, but I brought that up twice in the article. That’s really the element of the movie that bugs me the most.

     
  13. Joe S #

    I don’t think asking if he likes her counts – for one thing, it’s not unambiguously a come-on, and secondly, she’s already won him (to all intents and purposes) by this point. The question I’m really asking is: why did he fall for her so much in the first place? It’s just as unexplained as her leaping on him by the copiers.

     
  14. Trevor #

    As a notorious ladies man in my own right, I can say that Tom doesn’t necessarily have to *do* anything per se to attract Summer. Sometimes you’re attracted to someone even though they have done nothing to “earn” it. That’s the initial attraction, anyway (you see someone you find attractive, you’re going to be drawn to them even if they have the personality of a piece of cardboard. You only learn that later as you get to know them).

    I would say that any woman who informs me that she likes the Smiths is automatically ten times more attractive in my book (doesn’t hurt if she like Joy Division, Wilco, or Weezer either). It’s a shared connection, which Tom then blows all out of proportion (I laughed as much with cringing recognition as amusement when he dismissed Summer out of hand after she failed to respond to “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” being played on his computer for her benefit).

     
  15. Brimstone #

    “It would be one thing is Laurie was some kind of happy ditz but she’s not. Laurie is a aggressive, over-sexualized, angry pragmatist who hates the alienation that comes even with dating Dr. Manhattan (i.e GOD.)”

    WTF? A ‘happy ditz’ is more interesting then what you just said?

     
  16. Eddie #

    Thanks for ruining the end of Armageddon for me!

    …Just kidding.

    Great article. I just wonder what the writer’s intentions were in portraying Summer’s automatic attraction to Tom. I suspect, in the interest of moving the plot forward, they were more lazy* than revelatory.

    *(or due to time contraints, pacing, etc)

     
  17. Steven M #

    You missed the point entirely. 500 Days of Summer isn’t about how little a guy has to do to attract a woman; it’s about how much shit guys are willing to put up with self-absorbed females who pass off their physical attributes for beauty, before they go looking for someone decent, genuine and truly beautiful. The movie isn’t about meeting Summer, it’s about getting through Summer to get to Autumn.

     
  18. Peter Stanley #

    Yeah, I haven’t seen 500 days but I thought similar things about Garden State, but not the parts about it being a good film. How can these female characters be read as anything but figments of the guy’s imagination? It can be done well though, anyone seen Little Murders?

     
  19. perich #

    @Peter: no, but now I kind of have to.

     
  20. Roger #

    Don’t overthinkit, enjoy it. Romantic comedies that aren’t romantic or funny should not be compared to anything that is both. Go watch the first ten minutes of Up for inspiration.

     
  21. Oscar #

    @Roger I love Up but it was clearly make under the male perspective that this article criticizes. Ellie wasn’t a character, she was just an inspiration, a male fantasy. I notice that writers love women with male hobbies, maybe because in theory it’s easier to speak with them. Ellie loved Charles Muntz as much as Carl did, what would happen if she loved Frank Sinatra like many girls during the 40s?

    This crap won’t dissappear in a long time, there are too many lonely insecure men.

     
  22. Nobiz #

    Great Article. But to think you can even compare She’s Out Of my league to 500 days in any aspect is blasphemy.500 days might have a hopeless romantic Tom, but he is also a likable character. Unlike the character in SOML, who is just so cliched, and sex crazed. Tom didn’t do anything to attract her, but neither did Summer.If tom would have been listening to a different song in the elevator he probably wouldn’t even pursue her as much. Tom didn’t even actually LIE to her! He said he did like her, maybe not in boyfriend/girlfriend but he said HE LIKED HER. 500 is not a common romantic comedy and it is a very good movie. When Tom asks out Autumn it just shows that Tom learned his lessons with summer and he is not only matured emotionally but have gotten over her completely. I know i’m rambling but i just thought i should bring up some points.