Guest post: [95] Minutes of Sexual Double Standards

// 28 August 2009

In this guest post, Kaite Welsh considers the sexist backstory to (500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is the latest indie hit about to make it big. Based on the true story of screenwriter Scott Neustadter’s failed relationship, the opening credits insists ‘any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental’ – and then goes and spoils it by finishing with “Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”

Charming.

In today’s Daily Mail, Neustadter reveals the heartbreaking love story behind the film. Or, um, not. “We shared the same taste in books and music,” he reminisces. “That had to mean something, right?” What it meant, apparently, was that he spent months lusting after her – and committing the cardinal sin of subjecting all of their mutual friends to the saga of his unrequited love – only for it to end as badly as he knew it would. She didn’t want to refer to him as her boyfriend – who can blame her? – and the bitterness he still feels spills out into both the article and the film itself. Crushed, his only option was to slink back to the US, tail between his legs, and immortalise her as Zooey Deschanel.

No wonder the film is such a masterpiece of passive-aggressive misogyny. The trailer warns us that Hansen “grew up believing that he would not be truly happy until he found The One. Summer Finn did not share that belief.” The women’s movement that taught Summer to have goals other than a husband is subtly denigrated, and her dislike of traditional relationships is portrayed as a personal flaw of Summer’s – she just doesn’t care enough to keep her man happy, or even to keep him at all. Recklessly pursuing her own life at the expense of the fairytale ending that even men have been conditioned to expect, she’s a Woolf in sheep’s clothing.

Summer has been accused of being the latest in a long line of what blogger Nathan Rabin calls Manic Pixie Dream Girls – sparkly, peppy love interests whose only role is “to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”, and as such get no character development or plotline of their own. In fact, it is her refusal to conform to this mould that makes her the villain of the piece. In his tabloid diatribe, Neusadter implies that her desire to “be her own woman” was selfish, rooted entirely in a desire to act like a man – to be, as she puts it in the film, the Sid Vicious to his Nancy Spungen.

The predominant emotion that comes across is outrage. How dare she not reciprocate his feelings, when he “so desperately, even pathetically, wanted to make [it] work”? About the only thing he gets right is the fact that he was pathetic – the kind of passive aggressive ‘nice guy’ who claims to be content with something, all the while gilt-tripping her over wanting something more. He refuses to take any responsibility for the way the relationship worked out, and despite the fact that he claimed she called all the shots it’s clear that the only person who was really in that relationship was him. It’s another example of a man being confused and frustrated, when the perfect girl he’s put on a pedestal turns out to be a woman as flawed as the rest of us, with thoughts and hopes and dreams all of her own.

The philosophy of the film can be summed up in one line, where another (male) character describes her as “an uppity, better-than-everyone superskank”, managing to imply that she’s both frigid and a whore in one sentence. Now that’s impressive scriptwriting.

Comments From You

Amy // Posted 28 August 2009 at 6:36 pm

What is with the current shit- real of sexist movies?

I hate this whole ‘men v women’ obsession at the moment, it sucks.

It often amounts to whether men like the guy in this movie have a *right* to women vs whether women can just be left alone.

Guys have fancied me who I don’t like – these guys can be pretty nasty. Am I a frigid, uptight bitch, even if stalked?

Jennifer Drew // Posted 28 August 2009 at 7:05 pm

Scott Neustadter is a product of our male supremacist society. He, like so many men (including woman-murderer George Soldini) believes women’s sole purpose for breathing is to service men in whatever shape, manner or form men want. Which means of course, it is male sex right to have unlimited sexual access to any woman they see.

News flash to Neustadter women are individuals and no woman is your sex slave. Many men and women too experience relationships which do not work out but they accept the other person’s right to refuse to continue a relationship. But our patriarchal society promotes the lie that women are men’s sexual property.

So, Neustadter you like so many misogynistic men engage in sexually insulting women because in your view all women are either madonnas or whores. Men such as Neustadter are incapable of respecting women or treating women as autonomous human beings.

Instead Neustadter has claimed he is the ‘real victim’ and the woman is the monster who dared to – horrors – reject a man. Woman-murderer George Soldini adhered to the same misogynistic beliefs.

Lane // Posted 28 August 2009 at 7:39 pm

I understand your concern for the portrayal of women in popular culture, but we must keep in mind that this is simply what it is: a movie. A form of entertainment and art. We attend movies realizing that over the next 90, (95), 100 minutes, etc. that we are to suspend our disbelief. That notion does not pertain solely to fantasy flicks, it pertains to every movie, no matter how real. This movie is simply the product of one heartbroken writer’s story. How we judge the characters, writers, director, et al is purely up to our discretion. It is highly unlikely that any rational man seeing this movie (myself included in that grouping, as I would love to see this) will suddenly think of every woman that does not accept their advances as an “uppity, better than everyone superskank.” The fact simply is, there are women out there that fit that definition to a T. Not all, but some. There are men out there that treat women as objects. Not all, but some. Getting upset over a movie that may or may not state that fact over the course of 95 minutes is simply absurd. Go see it and judge for yourself. Or, even better, go see it and just have some fun for an hour and a half.

KateF // Posted 28 August 2009 at 8:24 pm

I saw a preview of the film last week. There were some sexist aspects that bothered me (for instance Summer is the only adult female character in it). But Summer did not come across to me as the villain of the piece at all. I interpreted Tom as ignoring her feelings and overstating what had only been a superficial connection between them. This seemed pretty clear from the reactions of characters around him and the revisiting of particular events as the film went on. The people I saw the film with agreed.

The “bitch” line made me wince, but did not seem to resonate with the way Summer was dramatised. It strikes me as interesting that the publicity (including the quotes from Neustadter and most of the reviews I have read) play up that portrayal even though it is not the film’s predominant one – perhaps it makes it easier to sell?

It also struck me as interesting that having a male lead means this particular romcom is marketed as angsty and hip, while the same story with a female protagonist would in most cases be marketed as fluffy, pink and brainless. My Best Friend’s Wedding shares more than a few points of similarity with 500 Days of Summer, as just one example, but it would definitely be pigeon holed in the latter rather than the former group.

Meghan // Posted 28 August 2009 at 8:35 pm

As someone who went to a women’s college and would certainly consider myself to be a feminist, I thought this film was honest, refreshing, and sincere and I was rather surprised to read Welsh’s incredibly negative reaction.

I don’t agree with the idea that Summer’s take on relationships was looked down on or portrayed as a flaw in the film. Sure, Tom’s character was upset by the outcome of their relationship and he and his friends said some pretty nasty things about her… but what person doesn’t say harsh things in anger when they are trying to deal with heartbreak? I hardly think it’s a negative commentary on strong, independent women who aren’t looking for a serious relationship. Furthermore, if it were Summer whose heart had been broken and her friends were consoling her by saying that Tom was, “an uppity, better-than-everyone superskank,” (only perhaps modified a little to be more appropriate for a man) let’s face it – nobody would be raising a red flag. Why should it be ok for women to console their girlfriends but not for men to make their buddies feel better? What a horrible double standard.

On a slightly different note, the above review talks about “subtleties” and “implied” meanings. I have to wonder if it is impossible in this day and age to just take things at face value? Why can’t we just watch a film and enjoy it without looking for subliminal messages or misogynistic undertones that may have been integrated in the plot (either on purpose or, more likely, unintentionally)? I thought this movie was a lighthearted take on how difficult it can be to let people you love go, and I ultimately found it to be inspiring and hopeful. I can sort of see the point that Welsh is trying to make, but I have to say I think she is nitpicking in an attempt to make something out of nothing.

Finally, I loved the opening credits. I laughed really hard (as did everyone else in the theatre)!

Lola // Posted 28 August 2009 at 11:54 pm

“a Woolf in sheep’s clothing”… awesome!

polly // Posted 29 August 2009 at 10:59 am

Dude – she’s just not that into you.

(Also as any fule kno REAL Smiths fans can only have disastrous love lives – you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die)

Mel // Posted 29 August 2009 at 11:49 am

Without having seen the film, it’s hard to disagree with Meghan about double standards. If the roles had been reversed and it was a man who didn’t want anything serious but still got involved with a woman who obviously did, would we be criticising her or him? If Summer didn’t want him as a boyfriend why did she get sexually involved with him at all? There does appear to be a double standard in this review. Both sexes have a responsibility not to treat each other’s emotions lightly … However I agree that calling the real life protagonist a bitch, or even naming her is way out of line.

Mel // Posted 29 August 2009 at 11:49 am

Without having seen the film, it’s hard to disagree with Meghan about double standards. If the roles had been reversed and it was a man who didn’t want anything serious but still got involved with a woman who obviously did, would we be criticising her or him? If Summer didn’t want him as a boyfriend why did she get sexually involved with him at all? There does appear to be a double standard in this review. Both sexes have a responsibility not to treat each other’s emotions lightly … However I agree that calling the real life protagonist a bitch, or even naming her is way out of line.

Ppyro // Posted 29 August 2009 at 5:32 pm

@Lane

Yeah, but once, just once it would be nice to see something mainstream from the other perspective! Then we could all suspend our realities as a slightly flawed, normal female protagonist skippety hopped through the narrative and no one thought it odd. I mean, I would love to see a slightly overweight, maybe even hersuit female zombie slayer slaying zombies because she happened to be the only one there at the time.

But it don’t sell. Sorry, you still have the monopoly on Hollywood.

last year's girl // Posted 29 August 2009 at 7:39 pm

While I agree that the opening credits disclaimer sounds dreadful, I can’t help but think it’s a bit rich to write off a film as “a masterpiece of passive-aggressive mysogyny” when you haven’t even seen it.

From KateF and Meghan’s comments above, and the pre-publicity interviews I’ve read with Zooey Deschanel, I can’t help but think that Summer is my kinda heroine. But I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Kez // Posted 29 August 2009 at 8:54 pm

Indeed, Polly.

I was just about to comment that I had no idea confessing to a love of the Smiths had such a fatally attractive effect on the opposite sex.

Mary // Posted 30 August 2009 at 10:20 am

I’m still baffled by this paragraph from the Guardian review of the film:

While Deschanel’s Summer is as whimsical as a traditional MPDG, the character rises above the cliche through her flaws. Deschanel was drawn to the role of this imagined “ideal”. “Summer is such an interesting character because she’s seen entirely from Tom’s perspective as this ideal woman,” she says, “when she’s actually just a smart, interesting girl with her own problems.” She’s perfect, but we see her only through Tom’s eyes.

In what way is that “rising above the Manic Pixie Dream Girl” rather than “the precise definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl”?

An Anti-Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl film, by the way, is Julie Delpy’s Two Days In Paris. It has all the elements – whiny misogynist American indie boyfriend, “crazy” girlfriend – except that it’s made by the woman, so it’s basically her story. I really love it.

I do not love the fact that Lovefilm is recommending me (500) Days of Summer because “if you liked Two Days in Paris, you’ll love (500) DoS!” No, I don’t think I will. It’s not even that find stuff like that particularly offensive any more: it’s just BORING BORING BORING.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 30 August 2009 at 12:42 pm

I haven’t seen the film, but reading the comments and the OP here, it seems like there are two conflicting interpretations of it:

First, what appears to be the OP’s line, is the conclusion that the film promotes, and even lionises, the attitudes of the “boy” side of the story. This means the message is “the proper place for a woman is serving her relationship with her man”.

Second, the line that appears to be taken by some commenters, is the conclusion that the film serves to expose the “boy” side of the story for what it is, and thereby show how foolish and unpleasant it really is. This means the message is “If you act like this, you’re a jerk” and also, “women like to have their own lives and such, dude! *whack over the head*”

As I said, I haven’t seen the film and I’m not going to say which of these perspectives I think is the more viable from that angle. But from the angle of “we live in a misogynist society”, I’m going to say that there will be a significant tendency for audiences to get the first message, not the second, except when there’s a handy feminist person around to explain the second one afterwards.

Goldie // Posted 30 August 2009 at 1:14 pm

“Just my imagination,

once again,

runnin’ away with meeee,

‘Cause in re-al-ity

I don’t fuckin’ know her!”

If only these fellas could keep their fantasies where they belong – in the imagination. Make things easier for all of us.

Sigh.

Kaite // Posted 30 August 2009 at 6:54 pm

Just to qualify, Lis – I have seen it! Did we not discuss it, or was that someone else?

KateF // Posted 31 August 2009 at 1:26 pm

‘In what way is that “rising above the Manic Pixie Dream Girl” rather than “the precise definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl”?’

@Mary: The difference is that the audience is meant to understand Tom is mistaken. Certain scenes are shown repeatedly, with different meanings as the film progresses; and incidental characters question Tom’s interpretation of the relationship. The film implies, and sometimes makes explicit, that his is not a reliable point of view. In fact finding the comedy funny, and the drama moving, depends on realising that his interpretation is wrong.

The film may be trying, I suspect, to have its cake and eat it by including all the features of the ‘manic pixie girl’ while simultaneously saying ‘of course this is only according to Tom’. I could understand this annoying viewers. I could also understand why someone would give the film a miss because they don’t want to see yet another story with a male protagonist – certainly, Summer, like all the other characters, is only ever seen in her interactions with Tom (which becomes sexist by default when that is standard for female characters in cinema).

I suppose where I balk at the original blog post is in the argument that Summer is the villain of the film. She’s not. You would have to really misread the film to see her that way. That isn’t altered by pre-publicity suggesting otherwise.

Cindy // Posted 31 August 2009 at 8:09 pm

I completely agree with Meghan. I didn’t see it as misogynistic at all, it was really refreshing! Especially to see the guy take on the rollercoaster side of relationships. The story was very original and Summer wasn’t portrayed as a you described, at least not to me or the people I watched it with. I for once, was happy they portray the “I don’t like relationships” type of girl, where else have you seen that in a romantic comedy?

Karen // Posted 1 September 2009 at 1:14 pm

I’m sticking to reading books. Telly’s shallow and harmful (except maybe the nature programmes), Hollywood’s shallow and harmful and even some aspects of the old Ealing Studios classics weren’t that clever (but I still like Passport to Pimlico et al). With a book, I can read the blurb to check the storyline for potential sexism and have some degree of imagination as characters are described without being force-fed a long line of bikini-clad goddesses in the obligatory lap-dancing scene that is used to advertise every film going these days. Give up on mainstream, these bastards need money to survive, if we stop giving them our money, they won’t. Give money to small art film producers instead. Money is what powers misogynistic capitalists like those that produce films, cut off their life blood and they die by the same sword they rip our gender apart with.

shreen // Posted 15 September 2009 at 5:41 pm

I think Kaite Welsh’ commentary is a masterpiece of getting angry over nothing.

I have seen the film and echo Meghan’s and Cindy’s comments – the film was refreshing and totally enjoyable. In fact, it was refreshing (not necessarily unique) because the focus was on the male lead, and because the female character was a little unconventional by romcom standards.

“He refuses to take any responsibility for the way the relationship worked out….”

I don’t see this at all. I saw that he was hurt, and was getting over it very slowly. The ending was positive and I fail to see how we can criticise what the male character did in a negative way at all. After all, he wished Zooey’s character well in the final park bench scene with no hint of bitterness.

“The philosophy of the film can be summed up in one line, where another (male) character describes her as “an uppity, better-than-everyone superskank”, managing to imply that she’s both frigid and a whore in one sentence. Now that’s impressive scriptwriting.”

I found the film entirely light hearted, even in the saddest scenes, which made it really watchable. That ‘superskank’ comment was the only hint of harshness in the entire film for me, and even then it was not out of place for the benefit of the story.

I really don’t see the problem with this movie. Is it because the focus of the film was the male lead, and since he wasn’t happy that the girl didn’t want the same things as him, it came across to you as sexist? Because I think that’s a huge leap to make, and a massively over the top and incorrect one at that.

Whether we shouldn’t even bother to discuss movies at all, as Lane suggested, or not remains to be debateable…

Tamasine // Posted 18 September 2009 at 8:22 am

I went and saw this last night, and I have to say I didn’t see anything that the op mentioned about this film. I usually can’t stand romcoms for the way they portray women – this film featured an independent women who was able to make her own choices about relationships and life – I’m not sure what was misogynistic about this portrayal? And as for the woman being put on a pedestal and turning out not to quite be ‘the one’ – well when has that not happened in any kind of relationship and who wouldn’t be upset about that (extending to calling people names?)? I found the message of the story to be positive – to take other people’s feelings and points of view into consideration and not to always expect to get what you want from a relationship. I think he did take responsibility for his actions – the number of times it was referred to him having wanted to have done something different or been able to see a sign that things weren’t right between them.

Zooey’s character had a positive impact on his life – he was able to consider doing something that he seemed like he would be good at – he just needed a friend to help him see this.

Personally I found it, as Shreen has said, light-hearted and funny with an awesome soundtrack.

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