Tuesday, August 18, 2009

friday night video fights:I Love You, Beth Cooper vs. (500) Days of Summer

One of the most pernicious ideas out there about women is the Billy Joel "She's Always a Woman" ideal. Did you know that thinness is actually NOT the #1 quality that The Culture touts as essential for feminine appeal? No, thinness is a mere #2. The absolute sexiest quality is coldness. (Perhaps hard bodies and hard hearts are linked in the cultural imagination.) Attractive woman = utterly opaque and without a trace of vulnerability. Manipulative, "fake," fickle, calculating, guarded. She can ruin your faith with her casual lies, and she only reveals what she wants you to see. Never even slightly messy, always perfectly pulled together, no sweat, no tears, no blood. Oh, she takes care of herself. She can wait if she wants. She's ahead of her time. Nice only "when she wants to be," with a gratuitous smile-that-ends-below-the-eyes. And the man who loves her? A doltish slob who can't help himself, as she's so irresistible that she lobotomizes anyone who dares to look at her. The constant lying and dissembling is always forgivable. Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me. As if someone who was sweet and genuine and sometimes messed up and had feelings and insecurities lacked some basic woman-ness.

And you always have this trope of a "nerd" being obsessed with this kind of woman. Men can be "nerds," but women can only be beautiful and unattainable. And for a very long time there was this unspoken rule that you were supposed to root for the nerd because he was the underdog. You were supposed to identify with him, think of him as "one of us." But it's been a long time since I've felt any warm fuzzies toward him. Because really, he's the worst perpetrator of She's Always a Woman. He's the one who makes her out to be this fantastical being and sets that as a standard for the rest of us.

So when I first saw the preview of I Love You, Beth Cooper, I felt that familiar punched-in-the-gut feeling. A high school nerd, the valedictorian of his class, is giving a graduation speech in which he embarrassingly (because nerds do embarrassing things) announces to the whole school how long he's pined after head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden "Clairebear" Panettiere). When I saw the preview I was angry that it even existed: inculcating a whole new generation of middle-schoolers with the notion that Nerd Boy drools over Perfect Girl, and Imperfect Girl is not in the movie—definitely not a main character, a valedictorian unrequitedly in love with anyone. I felt no need to go see it, and I cheered when magazines started panning it. Ordinarily I don't pay even that much attention to teen comedies, but this one was based on a book, which lent it more legitimacy.

But then (500) Days of Summer came out, packed with signifiers of legitimacy and also packing what looked like equal She's-Always-a-Woman punch to its high school counterpart. (500) Days (gotta love those parentheses) is Quirky! It stars ultra-precious Zooey Deschanel dressed all ModCloth! It's supposedly "subversive," turning the traditional love story on its head (in the same way as it's "subversive" to cheat on your spouse). And I would like to consider myself quirky and subversive, so I got the sense that 500 Days (I'm going to dispense with the parentheses because I just don't feel like typing them out every time) was Designed For Me in a way that Beth Cooper wasn't, that liking it would imply I was cool in a Zooey kind of way. So it wasn't as easy to write off, though it stars a doofusy guy (not quite as doofusy as the nerd in Beth Cooper) fawning over an inscrutable, impenetrable, perfect girl who always keeps a part of herself cordoned off from him, and is the quintessential "guy's girl" (it's been well documented how hateful the whole "guy's girl" stereotype is) because she's Afraid of Commitment, while her boyfriend wants love. I bet she also eats red meat when she goes out on dates to show how down-to-earth she is!

(This is "subversive" because men are supposed to be the commitmentphobes, not women. When is the collective consciousness gonna realize that "turning the tables" on stereotypes doesn't subvert them—it just reinforces them?)

So that was when I knew that Beth Cooper and 500 Days were gonna have to go head-to-head in a battle to see which movie wins for more gruesomely horrible perpetuation of She's Always a Woman: Would it be the lowbrow kiddie flick or the stylish quasi-indie? How would the two differ in their take? Would Beth beat us over the head hamhandedly while Summer manipulated us insidiously by appealing to our egocentric notions of intelligence and artsiness? How would the fact that Beth Cooper was supposed to totally suck figure in?

To see Beth Cooper I had to trek to the old-timey Pascack Valley movie theatre in Westwood, NJ, because that was the only place where it was still playing, in the tiniest little auditorium you've ever seen. I was the only adult there who wasn't chaperoning a posse of 11-year-old girls. The whole scene just emphasized, like, tenfold, how much I was slumming it even being there, like I was an overgrown Jonas Brothers fan. At least they charged me only $7 and let me bring my Starbucks Vivanno into the theatre. I got out a notebook (yes, Zooey, it's Moleskine) and pen to make notes for this post during the movie, and to show the rest of the audience that I was probably some sort of film critic and not just there for the sheer enjoyment of it.

(Did you ever read Sex and the City, the book? Where the original Carrie Bradshaw is a whole lot more prickly than her Sarah Jessica Parker incarnation? There's a scene in that where she goes to see, I think, "The Last Seduction" at the Angelika and the clerk tells her it's started already and does she really want to see it anyway? and she gets all "fuck you, do you really think I'm seeing this for pleasure?" like her intelligence has been insulted. That's the vibe I was going for.)

Anyway. On one level, the reviewers are right when they say Beth Cooper sucks. The way in which it sucks is just the usual movie-aimed-at-sixth-graders way of sucking, the cinematic equivalent of how cheaply made the clothes at Forever 21 are. Ridiculously dumb jokes based on ridiculously oversimplified and exaggerated stereotypes. Cringe-inducing reliance on teen-movie cliches, the type used in parodies but this isn't a parody. Popular girl as seen through nerd's eyes appears in slo-mo with wind in her hair and two henchwomen closely trailing her, in dresses and heels. Jock boys endlessly bark and use violence. Dapper gay boy has habit of quoting movies and then naming the movie he just quoted, which would be cute except they also have him cite the year and the director of each movie, in this singsong repetitive way that changes it from cute to stupid, as though the character were like Cookie Monster, with his signature silly bizarre behavior. It sucks in just the banal way that going to the mall sucks; if you don't want it, don't go to the mall.

(It all made me so happy to be 36 and not 11 years old that I couldn't help smiling at the two gigantic YOU ARE OLD signifiers in the movie: (1) Beth Cooper reveals that she was named for the Kiss song "Beth"—"my parents were headbangers," she says, and you realize that headbangers are something parents are, the way our generation says "my parents were hippies;" (2) the nerd's dad is played by ALAN RUCK!!! Let my Cameron go! Gotta take a stand! Ferris Bueller, you're my hero! And he totally looks like a dad, more than he looks like Cameron. I was in 7th grade when Ferris Bueller hit theatres; the death of John Hughes, a few days after I saw Beth, just underscored how much time has gone by.)

But here's what I was not expecting: The nerd gets his comeuppance. He and his best friend, the movie-quoting gay Cookie Monster, spend a wild, hijinks-filled night running around with Beth and her two henchwomen, and he learns that Beth is vulnerable. He doesn't get to ride off into the sunset still believing that she never gives out and she never gives in, she just changes her mind. When we first spend a little time with Beth, it's immediately obvious that she is filled with rage. Sweaty, frustration-borne rage, of the type that the sweetly sadistic she's-always-a-woman woman would never stoop to. She's a reckless and aggressive driver, which I think is just supposed to be funny, but it comes across as "get out of my fucking way, assholes" anger, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Head cheerleader, scorned? By whom? By her meathead boyfriend who abuses and cheats, for one, and for another, by guys in general—whom she's learned she can manipulate using her sexuality, but resents that she's constantly called upon to do that. When nerdboy apologizes for being so pathetic after one of his countless spazzing-out episodes, and Beth goes, "All boys are pathetic," it doesn't come across in the imperious I-have-them-all-wrapped-around-my-little-finger way of She's Always a Woman; it comes across sad and disappointed. Beth Cooper is someone who's been hurt by the tawdry world around her, even if she's found ways to make the tawdriness work in her favor.

And at the end, when Beth and the nerd have a heart-to-heart, she admits that she's scared about the future now that high school, which was so great for her, is over. And what's really nice after all this is that the nerd likes her even more. She shattered his fantasy but he realized he prefers reality, emo road rage and all. You get the sense that Beth was popular not because she's this exalted, godlike being but because she figured out how to play the game and decided it was worth playing despite all the depressing truths about humanity that it revealed. The She's-Always-a-Woman would shrug off those truths, saying things like "face it, that's just the way it is," basking in the opportunity to sound tough. Beth's not shy about showing her resentment, which is what makes her vulnerable and likable.

For bonus points, one of Beth's henchwomen is fatter than "hot girls" are usually portrayed as. No mention is ever made of her weight (by Beth or anyone else), which implies she isn't fat enough to be Fat, that she's pretty enough to be Pretty. This little breath of fresh air contrasts sharply with the moment when the character of Summer is introduced toward the beginning of her movie: a funny little 1950s-style voiceover (reminiscent of news clips about early space travel) states that she's of "average height and average weight," and these stats are then displayed onscreen: 5'5" and 122 pounds. Three pounds below the very conservative standard (even compared to BMI!) that I grew up hearing from doctors for what one should weigh—100 pounds plus 5 for every inch of height over 5 feet—and significantly thinner than average, according to what I've read about the average woman, but blatantly claiming to be average, in a classic passive-aggressive move that will be familiar to any woman schooled in the ins and outs of body competition. (Because the movie is Quirky, the voiceover says next that her feet are slightly larger than average). This sequence is definitely a harbinger of the story to come.

If I Love You, Beth Cooper is Forever 21, 500 Days of Summer is Anthropologie, an exquisite shopping experience with so many clever, lovable little details. Did you know that the owner of Anthropologie is a big-time donor to far-right anti-abortion antigay politician Rick Santorum? I know, it doesn't make sense. But that's 500 Days of Summer at its heart. Not in a literally right-wing sense, just in the sense of edgy on the outside and conservative on the inside.

The 50s voiceover leads into a description of how Summer is somehow magical, how she never misses a bus and gets called back about jobs 9.6% more often (or some charmingly irregular number like that) than everyone else. (It reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who I idealized, who always seemed to find a parking space in Manhattan without ever having to drive around and around the block, or a different ex-boyfriend I idealized, who found his dream job two weeks before college graduation without sending out even one resume anywhere else.) She probably also doesn't have an anus and so never shits or farts, but no, she has to have an anus to be an edgy sex partner. (There is an anal sex joke that Summer delivers in a demure deadpan, ladylike in all the important ways while still being a guy's girl.)

And since it's a disembodied voiceover giving this history of Summer, you get the message that it's not just her puppydog-eyed boyfriend who believes she is this way—she really is the Billy Joel song personified, complete with passive-aggressive refusal to "define the relationship." She can do what she pleases, she's nobody's fool.

And she keeps on being this way. It never changes. The movie's central gimmick—showing random days of the 500-day relationship out of order, with the breakup at the beginning—just emphasizes this all the more: It doesn't matter whether it's day 3 or day 273. Summer will always be Summer, somehow superhuman and always out of reach. Tom, the guy, gets all excited the first time he's invited to her apartment, thinking that now more of her private world will be revealed; what's revealed is origami birds hanging from the ceiling. In an Alan-Ruck nostalgia moment, he says the 1988 Patrick Swayze hit "She's Like the Wind," from Dirty Dancing, reminds him of her. He lists the things he loves about her, and all of them are physical, yet they're delivered in a rhapsodizing tone that suggests they hint at vast and mysterious inner amazingness.

If all this weren't enough for you, there's also this little girl who appears out of nowhere to give Tom blunt advice about love. She looks about 11 years old and speaks like a 25-year-old boarding-school alumna, which is supposed to be cute but is horribly obnoxious. The children-who-are-wiser-than-adults thing is really a variation on She's Always a Woman: Kids, especially girls, are not sweet or innocent (read: vulnerable); they're sassy, cynical smartasses who understand all of life's ugliest truths and feel fine about them. I can't be the only one who, for instance, would have liked Coraline better if she'd been more wide-eyed and less of a sarcastic brat, but pop culture loves kids who are sarcastic brats. I'm really not endeared.

One of the few Anthropologie-like button trimmings in 500 Days that I liked (um, apart from Deschanel's wardrobe) was the part where the screen is divided in half and one half shows Tom's fantasy of what happens when he goes to a party thrown by Summer, and the other half shows what really happens. It does nothing to dispel the Summer Mythology, but it does show in a nice subtle way exactly what Tom wants from Summer that he isn't getting: a certain type of intimacy. One gets the sense that Summer's magical qualities stem from this very unwillingness to give that intimacy—or, at least, that that's how she manages to give the impression of magical qualities. Haven't I read that before in some pink book about how to emulate Audrey Hepburn? Keep them guessing! If you're an open book, how will you ever appear mysterious and alluring?

But you have to admit, 500 Days of Summer is good-looking. If it were a restaurant, you'd want to be seen eating there at one of the outdoor patio tables. I saw it at an ordinary Multiplex where they charged me $11 and there were plenty of other adults in the full-size auditorium—it wasn't the ghettoized moviegoing experience that Beth Cooper was. And you don't have to deal with the stale french-fry mall smell of all those stupid jokes; it's a perfumed, aesthetically pleasant environment, humor-wise. But as far as portraying women in a way that serves us well, Beth is the clear victor in our Friday night video fight. Screw the hipster; save the cheerleader. Save the world.

So the next question worth asking is, what defines "good" and "suck" here? Is it that aesthetic consideration, whether it has indie-licious lowlights or the uncomfortable hot fluorescent fast-food glare of Mass Culture? I can't condemn that point of view; Moleskine in hand like an amulet or shield, I was skeeved out by the dumbness of Beth Cooper, I felt all bloated and gross like I'd spent a month eating only McDonald's. Watching Summer is like flattering yourself, playing house in an IKEA kitchen the way Tom and Summer oh-so-adorably do together. But if we didn't think people would like us better if we were the woman in the Billy Joel song, we wouldn't have to flatter ourselves.


  1. This is why we need more films written and/or directed by women.

    BTW, where do you think the Always a Woman sits in relation to the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope?

  2. Funny you should ask, because when I've talked to people about Summer, there has been talk of both Summer and Tom being a manic pixie dreamgirl/boy. I think maybe the MPDG is a subset of She's Always a Woman. She's Always a Woman isn't always manic, nor is she always faux-quirky ("The Center of the World" is a movie with a She's Always a Woman par excellence who isn't at all an MPDG). But MPDG is one way to be She's Always a Woman, yes, and a sneaky one at that, because there are all these outward signs of being "down to earth" and "not like other girls."