Beware the betrayal of women in politics

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven is disappointed with George Clooney's new film which renders women insignificant both on-screen and in politics

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven, 4 November 2011

Warning: Contains minor spoilers

Perhaps you were lured into your cinema seat, popcorn in hand, because of Ryan Gosling's talent for the introspective pause. Or was it George Clooney's husky chuckle? Oh wait, F-Word readers: you must have been counting on Marisa Tomei's witty one-liners and you also heard newbie starlet Rachel Evan Wood had a powerful screen presence.

Or maybe it wasn't the cast at all? You figured it was about time for another intelligent political thriller and, thanks to Aaron Sorkin's West Wing you know that Democrats' ideals make the best Hollywood dramatic fodder; Republicans' values are too far gone for complexity. You fell for this hype the same way you ponied up 50p more for a soda so large you couldn't make it through the end of the film without dashing for the loo. In short: you got fooled.

It's okay. I did too.

ides-march-cover-thumb-300x393-90361.jpg

The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney and based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, is about a Democratic Party primary campaign in the key state of Ohio. Campaigning on behalf of presidential hopeful and Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), young press aide Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) finds his brilliant career in jeopardy a few days before the crucial Ohio primary.

Morris symbolises charismatic, Obama-inspired political ideals: a clean-cut environmentalist and secularist. Asked about his faith, he professes that his religion is the United States Constitution. He is locked in a battle for the nomination with a vague character known as Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). Stephen Meyers, Morris' starry-eyed yet incredibly savvy aide, believes that Morris is the rare politician who can make a real difference in people's lives.

However, as one on-screen campaign staffer says, "You stay in this business long enough, you get jaded and cynical." The Ides of March needs nearly two hours to reaffirm this snoringly self evident conventional wisdom. And that's where the women come in.

The Ides of March omits women in power even from the minor roles and relies on a generous handful of three-dimensional male characters to tell its hackneyed tale

Have you heard the one about the chick, the serpent and the apple? Campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Woods) is the chick. Meyers loses faith in Governor Morris when during his own pillow talk with Stearns he discovers (the horror!) that she had an affair with 'happily' married Morris.

Stearns - already behaving as though she was due for the guillotine because she's had two sexual partners (gasp) - starts describing the set-up. She was sent from a staff party to deliver poll results to the governor in his hotel room after a campaign victory. Meyers immediately asks her if she was drunk. His tone implies that if Molly had been boozy, the incident either didn't happen or if it did, it wasn't inappropriate for Governor Morris to come on to a junior employee.

Molly and Stephen at the abortion clinic.jpg Although Meyers is the senior staff that 20-year-old Molly comes to for help, he reacts with the bitterness of a jilted lover and the severity of judge/executioner. Punishing Stearns emotionally for sullying the man he looks up to, he doesn't share his knowledge with Governor Morris. When Meyers discovers that his young lover and co-worker is also carrying the governor's child, he stops speaking to her. He schedules and finances her abortion, then boots her from the campaign trail as a punishment for the whole incident, although she begs to stay and promises to remain discreet.

If you're thinking now that I am dragging my feet getting to the juicy bits, so did the film. The abortion is not the height of the action in this climax-free flick, although it should be. That's why I spilled the beans.

My pulse flat-lined as I waited for something other than your basic 1990s Clinton-esque sex scandal to unfold. Clooney's character clearly references Obama; the film was made amid so many status-quo altering events in the US politics today - from the unpredictable antics of the Tea Party to bipartisan stand-offs that almost shut down a nation in recession - so it wasn't unrealistic to hope that Clooney the filmmaker would adapt the play and say something new about a burning social issue. That didn't happen. The front page of the newspaper is more exciting than this drama.

Arguably one of the most striking features of today's political field (both in the US and in Europe) is the rich variety of strong female politicians. Whether Tea Party figureheads like Sarah Palin or steely Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, there are plenty of modern options. Yet The Ides of March omits women in power even from the minor roles, just as it leaves out present day hot-button topics. The film relies on a generous handful of three-dimensional male characters to tell its hackneyed tale.

A sex-scandal plot is tired; a sex-scandal plot with an abortion in the US context has the potential to say something significant

If you've suddenly sat up and are now thinking, hey, this author has critically overlooked abortion as a super heiss, highly controversial political issue, let me assure you: the film is not about abortion. It could have been - that would have been great. But in order to do that you'd need to develop the female character who gets the abortion. Alas, rather than telling a young woman's story of making a bold career move to a male-dominated field and then deciding to have an abortion, the audience isn't shown how Stearns feels leading up to the abortion or following it. We never really know who Molly Stearns is.

So even though it includes one, The Ides of March is not the story of the abortion. It is the story about the potential to use a sex scandal to get what you want told from the all-powerful male perspective.

Ides_of_March.jpg To follow up on my point about The Ides failing to develop either of its two female characters and to support my argument with some stats, let's do the Bechdel Test, designed specifically to root out gender bias in pop culture. The film has two female characters, just barely. In addition to Stearns the intern, Marisa Tomei plays a streetwise political journalist (too insignificant to have a screen name) who is getting fed info on the campaign by Morris's PR chief. Not only do the two women never speak to one another, they're never even in the same scene: The Ides flunks the test with flying colours.

Yes, Gosling gives a stellar performance as a tactical wunderkind who decides he's staying in the PR-politico game no matter how corrupt it turns out to be. Gosling as Meyers leaves me utterly convinced that he has the betrayal-spawned blood lust to win a presidential campaign for his boss. Clooney's cameo as a smart-talking non-believer in an era of God-saturated election rhetoric is also impressive.

Yet the film fails to deliver greatness by underusing its female characters. A sex-scandal plot is tired; a sex-scandal plot with an abortion in the US context has the potential to say something significant. But this could have been achieved only by giving Stearns a voice, regardless of whether it would be pro-choice or anti-abortion.

Right before the final credits, already scheming how to be first in line for the ladies, I watched with chagrin as another lovely young female intern - Stern's replacement - fetches coffee for the men running the show. The message is clear: women are insignificant in politics and on screen.

Comments From You

Jarrah Hodge // Posted 04 November 2011 at 18:19

Thanks for this - I totally agree! My coworker and I were just talking about how angry this movie made us through its poor depiction of women. Not to mention I don't think one person of colour had a single line other than the Senator they were courting for endorsement. In my opinion Primary Colours was a far superior movie with essentially the same plot.

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About the author

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven is a writer in London. She's glued to her laptop by day. By night, she's out carousing. She is fighting a losing battle with her addiction to hookah. She is fascinated by Gypsy Rose Lee

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