Monday, January 20, 2014

On what's really unsettling.

A smart, successful female friend of mine recently posted about seeing Spike Jonze's latest film, Her, on Facebook. She said, among other things, that she found it "excruciating and unsettling." Someone whom I do not know commented on this status saying:

I was struck by this remark because I, on the other hand, loved Amy Adams' "retro-futuristic," practical outfits. I thought her unkempt hair was amazing and her skin seemed flawlessly unaltered. Clearly, we disagreed on the matter, perhaps because we have a difference in taste. But the more I thought about his comment, the more it became clear to me that this was not just an issue of mere preference: I like a frumpy, relaxed style and said troll does not, I like curly hair and said troll does not. The issue is in the word "unsettling." This person found Amy Adams' physical appearance in the film unsettling. Let's take a look, if we dare...

Amy (Amy Adams), Charles (Matt Letscher) and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her

Amy Adams is 39. She looks her age in this movie. Unsettled yet? She does not wear makeup or straighten her hair.  She dons collared shirts with boxy sweaters over them and carries a leather messenger bag. Her character, also named Amy, incidentally is a video game designer. I don't want to further complicate matters by implying that all ladies who work in tech fields don't wear makeup or dresses either now or in the future. However, as someone who spent ten years acting before enrolling in a Pre-Medicine post-bacc, I can attest that most actresses I know wear makeup most days and many of my science classmates do not wear makeup many days. I don't wear makeup more days that I do wear it now, because my priorities are different and it takes a lot of time to learn the bonding principles of organic chemical compounds... my point is, one should not be unsettled, or surprised even, that a female video game designer in her late thirties presents herself the way that Adams appears in the film.

Perhaps the issue is not how Jonze presented her, but how he didn't present her. He did not present her as a sex object for the viewer's immediate gratification... like David O. Russell did in American Hustle. In this promotional poster, she doesn't look frumpy. She also doesn't particularly look like Amy Adams. She is an airbrushed object, not a woman. Her body is being used to sell this movie to an insatiable consumer. American Hustle's Amy's eyes say she wants you and therefore you are pacified, you feel special, you feel safe, and you definitely don't feel unsettled because then you might walk away and spend your money elsewhere. 

Her's Amy isn't on the poster and she isn't naked in the movie and she doesn't want to have sex with you, thank you very much. We should be celebrating Her's Amy, with all her natural normalness, not tearing her down because she didn't show us any side boob. Glib comments like these are indicative that an actress' most valuable contribution to a film is her physical body. I'm not criticizing Adams for her work as a scantily clad woman in American Hustle. I'm saying it is for her work that she should be valued no matter what she is wearing.

I trust that my friend's friend is a totally reasonable and at least mildly intelligent person. I'm sure if I asked him, "Hey, do you think women should be judged by their looks instead of their character?," he'd say, "No way!" I'm sure if I walked up to him and said, "I'm not wearing makeup or a dress down to my navel, are you feeling unsettled?" he'd say, "No, what are you talking about?" So why did he send this small jibe into the internet ether, even if he was just kidding? He probably didn't realize he was sending it directly into my living room. The hidden and not so hidden judgements in the way we talk about women, especially famous women, twist and distort the way we think about ourselves, i.e., If Amy Adams is unsettling, then I must be vomit-inducing. If women repeatedly hear "harmless" jokes like this one, they quickly become convinced that their value is determined by their ability to visually please others and I don't find that funny.

We can blame the amorphous and omnipresent, big bad Media for the objectification and sexualization of women and for its obsession with youth and desire. We can do that... and let ourselves off the hook. Because today so much media and content is created by us and we must hold ourselves accountable when that content becomes belittling and disrespectful and small. My friend's friend completely missed the point of a movie about reality versus illusion. Instead of saying, "Amy Adams looked unsettling," he could have said "Amy Adams looked remarkably like the normal human being of average means she was supposed to be portraying." Or he could even say, "She looked frumpy." if he absolutely needed to put an adjective on her. Although I still disagree with him, I don't object to "frumpy." Just the other day, I was wearing one of my boyfriend's cardigans with reinforced elbows and a blue patterned dress I made from a vintage sheet I found at the Renegade Craft Fair. He chuckled when I walked into the kitchen and called me "frumpy chic" and I don't think he found me unsettling in the slightest.

I loved Her. I think it is one of the most complete, beautiful portrayals of the simultaneous miracle and tragedy of love in the modern age that I have ever seen. Amy Adams gave a simple and heartfelt performance. And my friend was right, the film was "unsettling" because it forced me to confront my fears of my increasingly digital future self. The message of Her is less about the future and more about today. People would be more comfortable with an Operating System, a partner that can be bought in a vending machine who lacks a physical form and will love them unconditionally, than with a woman who wears clogs and is too busy working on her documentary to worry about what her hair looks like. 

Amy Adams is an actress who is in a movie where she looks like how I look most days and I like that.