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JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT STUDIES DEPARTMENT: The Boys of Summer

So, I recently watched this movie. This movie: It was entitled (500) Days of Summer. You guys, it was FOR A PROJECT! I would not watch this movie just for the hell of it! I am doing something on like romantic myths and like love stories and junk! So clearly, I HAD TO DO IT. It was not even really a choice.

Anyway, one of my theses is that the romance has traditionally been the province of the “women’s picture,” but in the last few years (from High Fidelity on, let us say — or, if we wanted to stretch ourselves, we could say since Before Sunrise) there have been an increasing number of romances centered almost entirely on the inner lives of dudes. Often within, like, the VERY MINDS of the dudes: Eternal Sunshine takes place literally within a guy’s brain for the most part, High Fidelity has a dude talking extensively into the camera, and I suppose we would regard Annie Hall as the pervy, monologue-and-dream-sequence-prone grandfather of this entire genre. And (500) Days of Summer fits squarely within this genre, as well.

FINDING OF NOTE: All of the dudes in these movies have similar haircuts?

OTHER FINDING: These dude-traps-a-girlfriend-IN-HIS-BRAIN movies tend to be my favorites of the genre. Like: I seriously hate a lot of “womens’ pictures,” especially the recent variety. I could watch Eternal Sunshine on a loop in some sort of Clockwork Orange device without getting bored, as could I similarly do with certain (though not all) scenes of Annie Hall. The one where Woody Alvy follows Diane Keaton Annie into her brain and passes harsh judgment on dudes she has dated in the past — “oh, yeah, real heavy, eaten to death by squirrels” — I could watch a lot. I would I am not sure how to feel about this. Kind of sexist, perhaps?

Let me assure you, however, that these feelings do not appertain to (500) Days of Summer.

(500) Days of Summer is, to be brief, the story of Joseph Gordon-Levitt meeting, kissing, fucking, and continuing to fuck Zooey Deschanel, whilst Zooey Deschanel tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt continuously that he is Not Her Boyfriend. Then she says the fucking has to cease, and she seems not to feel too bad about that, and he is like, “BUT I AM YOUR BOYFRIEND!!!???” And she is like, no you’re not. And then he is sad.

We are encouraged to infer, from this series of events, that Zooey Deschanel is LITERALLY A MONSTER.

She is referred to, at certain points, as a “lesbian” (I don’t think those are bad), a “dude” (I don’t think those are bad), a “whore” and a “bitch” (pretty much determined, by cultural consensus, to be bad), and by several other unflattering epithets. Joseph Gordon-Levitt relates this story, in flashbackian mode, mostly to a little girl. Which I guess is meant to be cute. But wait till you hear what he says about you, young lady, if you ever grow up and have casual sex with a whiner!

This is not an unfamiliar narrative, this story about the MONSTER WHO DID NOT WANT ME TO BE HER BOYFRIEND. It may interest you to know, for example, that I recently read The Big Rewind, a memoir by the critic Nathan Rabin. Nathan Rabin is a great critic. Always happy to read that dude’s criticism! So funny! And also, his memoir put me in a KILLING RAGE for several hours at a time. For example, there is a chapter about his first girlfriend getting an abortion, and it for some reason focuses almost entirely on what a difficult and sad choice this was for Nathan Rabin. You, the reader, are like, “gosh, Nathan, that time you had to have someone go surgically up into your privates — that procedure can hurt like a motherfucker, I’m told — to remove some tissue, and walked away with a substantial chance that, for the rest of your life, if you ever relate this story to another person they will call you a Godless murdering whore, and also probably you had to deal with scary violent protesters calling you that on the very day it happened, must have been really hard for you. Oh, wait, that happened to someone else!” It’s sort of noted that the girl went into a deep, dangerous depression after the fact, but it is not really dealt with at any length, because what does that have to do with Nathan Rabin’s feelings about his abortion? And also, there is a chapter about The Girl Who Did Not Want To Be His Girlfriend. Like, of course.

This girl: She talked about not wanting a relationship. She talked about not liking monogamy. She talked about having sex with other people, which she was doing at the time. She talked about these things, apparently, A LOT; she established, as we would say, Clear Verbal Boundaries. And then one day, she uses the word “friend” in regard to Nathan Rabin, and not I guess “Super Ultra Important Lover With Whom I am So In Love OMG,” and Nathan Rabin flips his shit at this girl — both in the scene he is describing and in much textual fulmination.

Okay, so; you go to the diner for breakfast. And you are like, “French toast, please.” And they are like, “sorry, all out, would you like an omelet?” And you are like, “sure, one omelet please.” And they make it, and they serve it to you, and you look down at the omelet on your plate, and you take a bite of the omelet, and then you are like, “what the FUCK, this French toast tastes FUCKING TERRIBLE!” And then you, I guess, throw the plate at the waitress to make your point. Good show, dude!

I should note that it is hard, by this point, to believe in Nathan Rabin’s intense emotional vulnerability in regard to the Fairer Sex, because there has also been a chapter about how much he apparently likes paying for hand jobs from sex workers, and how disappointing it is when the women he pays don’t seem enthused enough about jerking him off. I just thought I would share.

And yet, I simply can’t eliminate empathy from my outlook here. Because also, let me tell you who has hurt my feelings in the past: Some Dudes. I will tell you a story, now, about a specific dude who hurt my feelings.

This dude was, at the time, my best friend’s roommate. He had a crush on me, I was told, for like A WHILE. Like, for several months this putative Crush on Sady was being nurtured, and related to me via my best friend, in the form of humorous anecdotes. They were humorous because for the first several months of this LOLcrush I was not at all single, and it was of course wacky that this dude thought I was so smart and cute and charming and funny, right? Never gonna happen, dude! Get over it! And then I became single, due to unrelated complications in the not-being-single department that made me feel I should change that situation, and then a series of events occurred which led to this dude and I making out. And I was like, “oh, how nice! Perhaps I have a crush on you, too! My life has developed in a very pleasing direction!”

We made out a few times. Like, over the course of a few weeks, we did that. And then he was like, “oh, did you not notice the several other girls I was making out with throughout this time period? There are other girls with whom I make out. Several! There will continue to be such girls. In fact, my schedule of making out with other girls has become so demanding that I have determined to eliminate you from the roster.”

The way I found this out, in case you were wondering, was three hours before a party to which I had invited him. Through IM. He did not send the IM, either; my best friend did. She was like, “okay, so he can’t make it tonight and here is what he told me to tell you about that, also I will buy your drinks tonight? And would you like to go shopping?” And I was like, “yes, I need some new dresses, and THIS IS A VERY HANDY WAY OF ELIMINATING ANY ACTUAL CONVERSATION ALTOGETHER YOU SON OF A BITCHING FUCK.” It was not even the not-making-out decision or the other-girls situation that got to me; it was the dishonorable use of GChat. I was like, an abuse of technology! This will not stand! But it took a while before dude could look me in the face, is what I’m saying.

Do you know what I did, in the intervening time period? I listened to the PJ Harvey song “Snake” 50 billion times, and I went for long night runs, and I started dating again, and  I eventually somehow managed to get the fuck over myself, because, come on, it was like a few weeks out of your life. Calm down, lady.

Furthermore, I kept a civil tongue in my head throughout. I never even had an angry conversation with the dude, if you can believe it; I kept quiet until I could write a nice e-mail about I think Dinosaur Comics, and I was polite if slightly distant to the dude at parties, and eventually this became a genuine urge to be polite instead of a chore, and this truce somehow held even through the time he managed to make out/not make out with MY roommate (both of them came to me the following day and were like, “whatever s/he tells you, IT IS A FILTHY LIE! The entire conversation was about YOU and YOUR FEELINGS, because I CARE ABOUT THOSE, and did I mention I was the only party in the conversation to DEFEND YOU”) and now everybody is friends again, or still. And it was not the end of the world. And nobody made a feature film about how anybody else was Satan.

My point is, I recommend stoicism in these matters! To the extent you can manage it! Because these things, they happen, and they are sad, but rarely as catastrophically sad as they seem at the time — looking back on it, you will invariably be like, “ha ha, remember that time I forgot how AWESOME I AM because someone kissed me and then was mean?” — and that is why we are able to take the chance of kissing other people in the first place. Because whatever happens, it’s not going to kill you, and also you will have been kissed.

What I am saying, albeit through a circuitous route, is that the entire picture (500) Days of Summer is based on some really unbecoming behavior. It’s hard to tell at first, because the movie hinges to such a great degree on the remarkable face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which is remarkable not only for being handsome (he got REALLY HANDSOME! Remember 10 Things I Hate About You, where he was the less-hot, awkward teen with the secondary love story? Yeah: things change) but for being very good at the whole “acting” thing, and conveying emotions with a certain degree of precision and power and, most crucially, charm. Here is how charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt is: He can make Zooey Deschanel seem similarly charming, just with a series of reaction shots. And here is how good he is at conveying emotion: You basically want nothing bad ever to happen to this man, because whatever his character is going through, he ensures that you Get It in a very fundamental way. But this is a trap, because the character eventually starts behaving like a total jackass, and you go through this very weird deal where one moment you are like, “awwww, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it will be okay, she totally is kind of a whore and you deserve better,” and then the next moment you are like, “wait, WHAT?! Shut the hell up, Joseph Gordon-Levitt! Shut your remarkably expressive face!”

Have I mentioned that, according to its screenwriter Scott Neustadter, (500) Days of Summer is semi-autobiographical? And that it starts with a dedication to the apparently semi-Deschanelesque lady in question? And that the dedication ALSO calls her a bitch? Yiiiiiiiiiikes. I sure hope the dude responsible for that decision looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt because otherwise I predict a very long series of strike-outs whenever he tells that story. On the plus side, I think Nathan Rabin just found a new member for his fantasy baseball league.

And that is where shit gets REAL complex. Because, like: I have been in the situation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in this film. It’s a common situation. It’s not a fun situation, necessarily. It’s also not a situation which mandates going on a rant about “whores” in one’s place of work, but whatever. The thing is, I think I find it easier to maintain my high-mindedness and cool in those situations than another person might. Specifically, a person who is a dude. Despite the much-vaunted crazy clingy psycho bitchiness of my gender, I think it’s easier for me to be gracious in those situations precisely because I am a girl.

Because girls frankly expect this behavior from guys. We are told, continually and throughout our lives and in every major media outlet and dating guide, that Guys Are Just Like That. Or the vast majority of them, anyway. Guys want physical contact, girls want emotional contact, we’re told; therefore, if we make physical contact with a guy, we should not expect emotional contact to follow. Granted, to hope is not to expect, and the entire courting structure is basically designed to allow us to perform a semi-realistic risk analysis, but girls are still basically informed that this entire deal, this sex and/or dating deal, is a game of poker and you shouldn’t play unless you can afford to lose something, and you should be cautious with your bets.

Dudes, on the other hand, are apparently entirely unprepared for this. Girls want emotional contact, they’re told, and guys want physical contact; therefore, if they make emotional contact with a girl, they can reasonably expect it to be reciprocated. And when it’s not, it’s like gravity suddenly stopped working. This just isn’t how things go; it’s an outrage; she’s cold, evil, a monster. Or at least this is what I can uncover from the dudely works of Nathan Rabin and (500) Days of Summer. They’re playing the same game of poker as the rest of us, these guys, but they think it’s play money. Which means that when it’s time to pay up, that sucks extra-hard.

So, yes: (500) Days of Summer is a movie about a boy who acts like a girl and a girl who acts like a boy. But here’s why I’m not thrilled about this: If Zooey Deschanel were actually a boy, and in this situation, most people would not perceive her as the problem. She wouldn’t be a monster, a whore, a freak; she’d just be a dude. And she’d get to complain about the clingy psycho bitch she fucked who’s now, like, putting all this pressure on, that bitch is fucking CRAZY, she just hooked up with the girl, she didn’t buy her an engagement ring, etc. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt, were he an actual girl, would be getting some sympathy from his lady friends, true, but he would also be getting well-meaning lectures about how Dudes Are Like That, and what did he expect, and he needs to be more cautious about these things and not put out so easily, and has he ever read a book called “He’s Just Not That Into You?” He should read that book. He would be told, to be blunt, that he was the real problem in this situation.

So the verdict, in case you were wondering, is that if girls fall for boys, and those boys don’t fall for them, they are clingy bitches. And if girls don’t fall for boys, and those boys DO fall for them, they are heartless bitches. No matter how this situation goes, if there turns out to be an inequality of desire, you’re getting called a bitch.

Which, sure, sounds bad. And yet, I find, it continues not to be any kind of deterrent. You are just going to keep playing poker, apparently, and you are going to play it like it’s the only game in town. Because who doesn’t like a game of cards; because you never know if you’ll get a good hand; because you could walk away with more than you had when you walked in. Because there is always, somehow, despite all the ridiculousness of the genders and the ways they are expected to relate to each other, the possibility of winning.

73 Comments

  1. laureney wrote:

    My brain just went “YESSS!!!”, did a brain fist pump, and then JUMP HIGH-FIVED this post.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Crito wrote:

    So perfect.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  3. “Have I mentioned that, according to its screenwriter Scott Neustadter, (500) Days of Summer is semi-autobiographical? And that it starts with a dedication to the apparently semi-Deschanelesque lady in question? And that the dedication ALSO calls her a bitch?” … Classy!

    I’ve never read Nathan Rabin, but I’m always happy to read your criticism. You have a genius for making it fun to read about movies I never ever want to watch.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  4. LSG wrote:

    Yes. Excellent post, as usual.

    I watched (500) Days of Summer with my roommates, and the only good part for me was when the voiceover said “there are two kinds of people in this world, men and women,” and my roommate, with whom I have been discussing the issues of gender identification extensively, said “well, that’s not really true, right?” I was gratified. (Oh! There was one more moment! When he goes on the blind date and whines the whole time, and the date gets sick of his whining and points out that Summer was always very clear that she didn’t want a boyfriend. Of course, then the girl continues with the date, at least for a while…because girls are just self-sacrificing and/or desperate like that, I guess?)

    Also not on topic, the next day I was in a boy’s house and noticed that he had The Architecture of Happiness on his bookshelf.I told him that he owned a book that had been featured in a terrible movie, and he said “It was a disappointing book — the author seemed really smug about how clever he was being, but he wasn’t being nearly as intellectual or revolutionary as he thought.” I do not mean to malign The Architecture of Happiness, which I have not read, but I howled with laughter. It seems like perhaps it was an apt book for JGL’s character.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  5. Agnes wrote:

    I agreed about the ridiculousness of JGL’s whininess, but the movie did at least seem to address that in the blind date scene where the date lead him through the “and she always said you weren’t her boyfriend?” lack of self-awareness he was having. Not that it penetrated…

    And you’re very right about the power of JGL

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  6. shayne wrote:

    i had a very different experience watching this movie, and that’s because i found it so clear that the entire thing was told from his perspective. he saw her as a monster, but i as a viewer did not – because i actually *heard* zooey’s character when she reiterated over and over again ‘i do not want a relationship’ and i think that many viewers heard it, as well. i think that any viewer who actually listened in 10th grade english class, read one flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and at any point in their life realized ‘oh shit, you really *can’t* trust the narrator’ cannot possibly have been left with the idea that zooey’s character is a monster. now i admit that there was no literal first-person narration happening in this movie, however it was positioned entirely from JGL’s character’s perspective (we as viewers get no insight into zooey’s head, we just hear what she says – which is *emphatically* “no”!), that i believe that any viewer who seems zooey’s character only as a monster isn’t thinking critically about how it’s presented – and yes i acknowledge that there are plenty of people out there who won’t do this, but i’m not sure we can blame the filmmaker & writer for that lack of critical thinking.

    and i also cannot believe (although truth is so very often stranger than fiction) that the writer himself doesn’t recognize (now with hindsight) exactly how deluded he was during this ‘relationship’ – and i suspect that the ‘dedication’ at the beginning is probably tongue-in-cheek, quite possibly an inside joke between writer and real-zooey-character-woman. but if it is tongue-in-cheek, it’s certainly not clear until after the movie is over – and on first glance appears to be a misogynistic dedication for exactly the reasons you point out.

    all of this aside, i was constantly enraged at the JGL character throughout the movie for his inability to listen to the WORDS the zooey character was saying to him, so i understand the underlying emotion of your post, i guess i just ‘read’ the movie quite differently.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  7. DeepOmega wrote:

    So I mean… You never really address how the movie 100% addresses your concerns! Like, the point here is that this movie is kind of a deconstruction of the male-centric romantic movie. We know that JGL romanticizes the shit out of the 60s and 60s britain in particular and there’s totally this vibe from him that he wishes he had a “60s style movie romance” – but the point is that any relationship movie where there is only one main character is actually totally untrustworthy. He’s an unreliable narrator! That’s the point!

    So, yes, he’s telling his charming story, but as it goes on we get more and more uncomfortable with his behavior, over and over, until… Blammo. We see the big reveal that actually he is a narcissistic asshole who doesn’t understand how relationships work. His setting up this relationship as “meant to be”, in the SAME WAY romantic movies do, is bullshit and insane. The failings of “romance” as a genre are laid bare! It’s kind of like My Best Friend’s Wedding but with hipsters? I guess?

    Anyway the point is, the movie knows everything you’re saying. You are not surprising the movie with New Facts!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  8. RedSonja wrote:

    I will admit that I’m still planning on seeing this movie, but only because Matthew Gray Gubler is in it and I wish to hug him and squeeze him and call him Squishy.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Gayle Force wrote:

    Aaaaannnnnd, apparently the stars have aligned, because I just watched this last night and posted about it over at my place, and also shared some personal stuff.

    But I was SO MAD that JGL was SO MAD at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl! For being clear and making boundaries! Because, according to this movie, women having boundaries based on their own needs means they are heartless, inconsiderate bitches. Am I then surprised that men don’t respect women’s boundaries physically? Not so much.

    The problem, as set up in this movie, is when women get what they want, without trumping their male partner’s wishes over their own. It’s weird how no one points out maybe JGL’s character wouldn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with him? I feel like consent is sort of important in my relationships, but perhaps this is just a silly lady notion of mine.

    And yes, you are so right about the power of JGL. Ever since I saw Mysterious Skin I am a huge fan.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Rebecca wrote:

    Ah, this is good to read. Certain movie websites I read have been fawning over this movie for months (like, before it came out they were all ‘this looks great!’ and then after it came out ‘it’s so great’ and then even up to February, it was ‘isn’t it a TRAVESTY that this movie did not get an Oscar nomination for best screenplay?’ answer: no) and I did share my experience of seeing it at a film festival w/a Q&A with the director. Here it is:

    Someone asked the director why, in a movie that is so fanciful and whimsical, he used words like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ and ‘whore’ so liberally. He basically looked confused that this was even a question, and then stammered for awhile, and then ended it with ‘that’s just the way guys talk’.

    Grrr.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  11. Danielle LaBove wrote:

    This is a Winning Post for SURE. High five!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Peanut wrote:

    Maybe this is skewed by my POV as someone who has been in Summer’s position more than once. I didn’t feel like I was being encouraged to think that she was a monster at any point during the movie; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character was so whacked out and over the top about the ridiculous emo that I spent the entire movie thinking it was a satire on the emerging trend of reversed gender roles in relationships.

    … You mean it wasn’t? She really was supposed to be the bad guy? I like that movie a whole lot less, now.

    Initially the part that bothered me was that, finally, there was being portrayed a strong female character who had no desire for commitment, not because of bitterness or jealousy or because she was a shrew, but because she just didn’t need it to feel good about herself.

    Then she got married. WTF.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  13. dothebustle wrote:

    JGL’s character is an unreliable narrator. He believes Deschanel’s character is an angel and later a monster, but I don’t think the audience is meant to see her in either of those ways. He’s wrong about her being the magical solution to his loneliness, and he’s wrong about her being a devil. His vision of the world is warped, and I don’t think the movie asks us to accept it at face value.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  14. Tavi wrote:

    I’ve never seen this movie (and I don’t want to but probably will give in some day, sigh) but EVERYONE with whom I have spoken of this film, be they male or female, has said “Summer is a bitch.” Or, if they never saw it, “Yeah, I heard Summer is a bitch.” Oh, I say? “Yeah, like she hangs out with him and they like each other and then she decides she doesn’t believe in marriage and leaves.” THE NERVE!

    Also, supposedly it *SPOILER ALERT, IN CASE ANYONE ACTUALLY CARES* ends with him meeting a girl named Autumn? HA HA, I GET IT! THE SAME THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN! Because it is a common, and awful, as indicated by your “woe is me” expression once you hear this girl’s name, thing to have a fling with a dude and then want to like, NOT MARRY THEM.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  15. Jessica wrote:

    This post is magic; it’s inspired me to (finally) donate $$ to keep you alive and well. Keep it up, please!
    Jess

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  16. Mark O. wrote:

    I love you dearly. Also, as much as I want to play kissy-face with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I don’t want to see this movie. I’ll just watch BRICK 40 times in a row.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  17. Maud wrote:

    This post illustrates one of the reasons I enjoy reading Tiger Beatdown; I learn what is going on in pop culture in a much more insightful and entertaining manner than I would by actually exposing myself to it.

    In this thread I have also learned that some of us have been to college – quite recently, if not contemporaneously, I would guess – and have there learned of a literary device the existence of which we are eager to share with writers we earnestly assume to be completely unfamiliar with the concept, despite the extraordinary unlikelihood of that. But that is not so new nor interesting a development as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s maturation into handsomeness.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  18. Bmichael wrote:

    This blog post is in fact, post-temporally, the inspiration for the popular Lady Gaga song Poker Face.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  19. Brimstone wrote:

    I’m sorry to hear about Nathan Rabin’s book. I usually like his writing, and his Magical Pixie Dream Girl is useful.
    Haven’t seen the movie yet, but
    “Dudes, on the other hand, are apparently entirely unprepared for this. Girls want emotional contact, they’re told, and guys want physical contact; therefore, if they make emotional contact with a girl, they can reasonably expect it to be reciprocated.” struck pretty true
    until I actually started dating and realized that, yeah, some girls just want to get laid. And that’s cool. But when you first meet somebody navigating the level of emotional commitment is weird. But also kinda fun, as your last paragraph points out.

    There’s another article on it that also slams into Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character. BTW, have you seen Brick? http://www.overthinkingit.com/2010/03/03/weak-male-characters/

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  20. elle pesh wrote:

    The whole movie is infuriating. He’s emo, she’s overrated, the premise and plot are 6th-grade-”books for girls” level.

    And nobody could watch Eternal Sunshine on loop and not put a gun in their mouth at some point. For all the kvetching about 500 being “a movie about love” with a gun-in-the-mouth ending, Eternal Sunshine did it, did it better, and had Kate Winslet instead of some fucking retroid “Betty Page would’ve been hot if she’d just been a housewife” pixie. (Both had male leads that I can’t possibly take seriously because of 3rd Rock and In Living Color.)

    The real thing to get pissed about is how 500 and Sunshine exist, but where’s the same caliber of movie from a female perspective? There isn’t. Hollywood says women won’t go see a movie about love with a negative ending for women. Well shit!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  21. Synchronia wrote:

    Maud,
    Okay, so you’re saying everyone here already knows about unreliable narrators, and that’s fine. Do you have any evidence that this movie didn’t intend for Tom to be an unreliable narrator? What’s the argument that Tom’s view is actually the same as the film/filmmaker’s?
    For example, what about the party scene with split-screen when we get a clear contrast between what Tom wants from Summer and what Summer’s life is really like? Isn’t that supposed to make it clear that he was wrong to assume she wanted what he wanted?

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  22. anna wrote:

    See, I enjoyed the movie when I saw it because I thought we were supposed to recognise that Tom was being a huge jerk and living by unrealistic expectations and the movie was not a romance but a story about a guy slowly realising that he needs to grow up and stop projecting his own desires onto others. AND I thought it was supposed to be subverting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope because Tom tries to treat Summer as the Answer to his Problems until he learns she doesn’t exist just to please him and actually has her own desires.
    And then I tried to share this thought with the other people who I saw the movie with, but they kept saying “summer was such a bitch! Tom was the perfect man! He liked the Graduate!” So I think I interpreted wrong. (These people also said that Autumn at the end was totally wrong for Tom because she seemed ‘airheaded’ even though she was, you know, an architect.)

    Either way, I realise Zooey plays some flat characters but I liked how in this film she played a woman who was very in control and unapologetic about her sexual desires.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  23. anna wrote:

    I used the word “desire” too much in that comment!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  24. Elizabeth wrote:

    I, like some of my fellow commenters, watched the whole movie as a point-of-view, unreliable-narrator thing about a guy overreacting to a (sort of) break-up and being a douche, and becoming aware of his douchiness, although I thought [SPOILER] the scene on the park bench was too nice to JGL- the storyline and Summer are both too nice to him there. When you’ve been dumped, and been an unreasonable jackass about it, which I in fact have done, you don’t get someone to hold your hand and tell you you’re great to help you get over yourself, especially not the person who dumped you.

    I think what bothers me about this movie is that it would be easier to accept the unreliable-narrator thing if the story JGL tells (she dumped me! she is the antichrist! my assholery is justified!) weren’t handed to us as an ACTUAL storyline all the damn time. This movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists in the same world as Getting Over Sarah Marshall.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  25. LizM wrote:

    I too saw this film. Wish I had skipped it and read this review instead, as it pretty much sums up everything my boyfriend and I said about it at the time (and by “said about it,” I of course mean yelled at the TV between eye-rolls).

    @Deepomega–Funny you should say that… when I was watching it I kept hoping that that was where they were going with the whole thing but I never felt that they actually got there. If, in fact, they were going for that, I don’t think a good job was done of it all.

    @Tavi–I thought the Summer/Autumn thing was supposed to mean he had graduated to the next phase of his love life or some such dreck, but your interpretation could be right also. Or, could be right instead; they probably can’t both be right…

    And @ everyone who brought up the unreliable narrator thing… yeah, I think they were going for that but in a half-assed, intermittent sort of way. I could see how less astute viewers could totally miss that element and just think Summer was a bitch. I feel like it would have made more sense if it had been some kind of big reveal–like, if you *finally* got Summer’s perspective at some point later in the movie and realized he was a self-deluded douche–or if the character had maybe learned to stop being such a self-deluded douche instead of learning to keep dating ladeez until he finds one that doesn’t dump him. (On the other hand, this movie might work better for viewers with less in the way of feminist sensibilities than most of us commenting on feminist blogs probably have. I mean, if I had initially been sympathetic to the character and only gradually realized he was an unreliable narcissist instead of thinking that all along, it might have had the desired impact.)

    But really, I just resented how male-centered the movie was. Like, why am I being asked to give a shit about this guy’s innermost thoughts? I kept wondering if perhaps the movie was based on some 1950s novel, from the heyday of being-expected-to-give-a-shit-about-the-sexual-escapades-of-some-delusional-douchebag fiction.

    Sady, I wonder if you have also suffered through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh–another recent crap film in the same crap genre, but complete with unnecessary gay sex scene?

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  26. anna wrote:

    to add: which isn’t to say I thought Zooey played a perfectly fleshed out character. Or that the use of calling her a whore/lesbian for humour didn’t bug me. Or the whole “there are two types of people: men and women HAI GENDER BINARY” scene wasn’t problematic, especially because it showed all these guys falling in love with Zooey for no reason other than she was pretty, which played into the whole MPDG thing and contradicted the rest of the movie. So please don’t think I’m trying to pass this movie off as flawless, it was far from it.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  27. Thumbelina wrote:

    Funny actually, because my two best friends are both dealing with boys who are Not Their Boyfriends, boys who once were their boyfriends but no longer are, and neither of these dudes actually seemed to…realise this.
    Like as in, one of them broke it off and moved out of their apartment together six months ago, and when the ex-boyfriend found out (last month!) that she had been kind of seeing someone else, accused her of cheating on him.

    It’s like they just choose whether or not the reality of the situation is to their liking, and make up their own reality inside their heads. Creepy.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  28. Can I just comment to say that I actually liked the movie for these reasons, and have been baffled by all the vitriol directed at the Zooey character until reading this? I have actually been so ~ruined~ by feminism that I didn’t understand how “Lady tells guy she is not his girlfriend and then he gets mad because she’s not his girlfriend” made HER the badguy. I thought it was supposed to be a deconstruction of the MPDG thing, wherein the MPDG actually has her own desires and they don’t line up with the main male character’s, shock horror!

    That analogy about breakfast at the diner will go far in helping me explain why I thought the JGL character came off looking worse than the Zooey character, I think. Also, it made me laugh out loud.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:04 am | Permalink
  29. Brenda wrote:

    Yeah, it was weird, because the movie, it did seem aware of the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who, to get this out of the way, is indeed terribly handsome) was totally delusional about his relationship. I think the JGL-as-unreliable-narrator point that many people have made here is sound.

    However! It still didn’t really mean that they gave the Zooey Deschanel character any kind of personality or ambitions or qualities outside of being an object. I think it was trying to “deconstruct” some romcom tropes, but it was too lame to push it far enough to not still be kind of sexist. (Also: Autumn!? That ending erased all the Hall & Oates goodwill for me.)

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:34 am | Permalink
  30. charley wrote:

    this post was fucking great, and kind of coincidentally timed, because I just wrote up this list of passive aggressive summaries of ideologies and referenced “that hipster movie with zooey deschanel” in it. which was this movie. weird!

    and yeah, what the lady above me said. I kind of feel like this movie would have been a lot more interesting if, like, zooey deschanel was the main character.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 3:04 am | Permalink
  31. Kristina wrote:

    After having read all of the comments about women who don’t hate the MPDG character, I felt I really had to say something. I’m in the same boat: I never thought that she was a monster because, well, JGL was an unreliable and moronic narrator who was living in a weird fantasy world, (obviously the only one in which MPDGs exist, but that’s beside the point). I was, however, told beforehand to “watch out” for her character. All of her male friends, and even my ex, talked about how much of a cold bitch she was. My ex, in fact, said “well, I kind of relate to her character more, in that whole not wanting super seriousness thing, but she’s crazy.” Hence, I was really prepared to hate her and her crazy man/love/happiness-hating ways.

    When I reported back to my ex, I said that I actually related to her and thought that she was totally right in the things that she did and said. He was appalled. APPALLED! In a very “but-but you’re a LADY” kind of way. This argument was rehashed last night, and even though I cited this article and pointed out the gender inequalities here, (which even he inadvertently admitted to, based on his telling me that he “related” but she was “crazy”), he stayed with his rationalization that she was mean. Then he laughed at me for reading “all those feminist blogs”…

    Do we *really* wonder why I related to that character???

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  32. Rose wrote:

    You know, when I saw (500) Days Of Summer (and lord, those brackets get irritating when you have to type them 15 times) I tried to write about it, in completely different ways, about five times. I had a whole thing about if JGL’s character were a woman her pain wouldn’t be taken seriously, with reference to the films you mentioned, and a whole thing about the (frustrating) use of pop culture was making this appeal to critics and of course dudes of that nature. but you’ve managed to express it all so much better.

    I would really like to say this is a film which has an intentionally unpleasant main character, but it veers in and out of that viewpoint: sometimes his emotions are clearly ridiculous (such as the blind date), but there are moments like when Summer first starts working at the greeting card company and JGL’s all “Why do pretty girls think they can be so horrible?” And then I roll my eyes so hard they fall out of my head.

    Not to mention that this film may be about a guy’s delusions about a girl, but it ends up with the same amount of unknowable, magical girl as any straight film about an unhappy man whose girl changes everything. Like Garden State.

    Also I am completely disappointed by Nathan Rabin. Why do guys think telling us about that time they used prostitutes is noble and honest? it’s creepy and unpleasant. Particularly when they frame it all “oh, pity me. I was just so alone.”

    Finally I would like to congratulate twelve-year-old me for recognizing the hotness of JGL.You weren’t right about Dawson’s Creek, but you were right about that.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  33. Kat wrote:

    looking back on it, you will invariably be like, “ha ha, remember that time I forgot how AWESOME I AM because someone kissed me and then was mean?” — and that is why we are able to take the chance of kissing other people in the first place. Because whatever happens, it’s not going to kill you, and also you will have been kissed.

    Yes. Just…yes.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  34. Nila wrote:

    Normally I agree with what you write but I’m with the other commenters on this one. In fact, I strongly recommended this movie to my friend who is EXACTLY like JGL’s character (minus the calling her a bitch afterwards), always romanticizing and idealizing pseudo-relationships and women in general, with me always being the little sister character saying, “just because a girl likes all the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t make you soulmates!”

    Also, there was an interview with the screenwriter where he said it was a painful hung for him to write because it made him face what an asshole he was, and in some ways sort of still is. He’s grown but he knows he still needs to grow, is what the interview was saying. Which might explain a couple of the slightly more questionable moments in the movie.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  35. Nila wrote:

    And by “hung” I mean “film”. Dang iPhone keypad.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  36. Crito wrote:

    I had planned to, after I Make It Big, endow an English professorship at my alma mater, but now, I think maybe my endowment would be better spent starting the nation’s first Joseph-Gordon Levitt Studies program.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  37. Liz wrote:

    I agree that the behavior exhibited by JGL was unwarranted.

    Where I disagree with you is that I think the movie acknowledges that. I think the movie addresses what is quickly becoming a real-life trope: “the nice-guy douchebag.” JGL plays a likable character that we are supposed to shake our collective heads at, but with whom we identify, too. JGL has unreasonable feelings in regard to a situation he should have known better about. Welcome to dating. I don’t have a problem with (500) Days presenting this kind of behavior; it’s honest. I would only have a problem if (500) Days presented this behavior as *correct* and I don’t think it does. I think even the dedication is meant to make the writer look like an unreasonable douche, an unreasonable douche that we all know.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  38. ozymandias wrote:

    Yeah, I agree with everyone above. I totally thought we were supposed to facepalm at JGL’s complete inability to read subtle signals, and possibly want to buy him a copy of “She’s Just Not That Into You.”

    It’s like listening to lyrics to Fall Out Boy songs (shut up, I own my taste in music, okay?): half “awww, poor baby”, half “well if you were less of a /dumbass/, maybe you wouldn’t be having this kind of problem.”

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  39. Sarah TX wrote:

    I haven’t seen this movie, so I don’t know which interpretation I support, but I would like to ask the post-modern-interpretation crowd (ie “JGL was SUPPOSED to be the douchebag! That’s the point of the movie!”):

    If the screenwriter intentionally meant this semi-autobiographical stand-in of himself to be the bad guy, why does it include that silly “Especially you Jenny Beckman/Bitch” part right at the beginning? It’s even in the screenplay.

    Other tidbits from the screenplay: The very first direction: “CLOSE ON TOM, looking at Summer the way every woman wants to be looked at.”

    Page 8: “The sound slows down on the word ‘friend’ (which is an awful, awful word).”

    I can go on.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  40. TheDeviantE wrote:

    I’ve had a crush on Joseph Gordon Levitt since I was a wee one watching Third Rock from the Sun (certainly!) and maybe even in the movie Angels in the Outfield. After all, he’s a little older than me, and people a little older than me always play people my age on camera…. so yeah, plus I fucking loved 90s boy hair. I still do, I refuse to repent.

    Anyway, I want to agree with Shayne and Agnes but certainly *not* Deepomega (’cause dude, it’s just not cool to be all: “this is how I read it, it’s the ONLY POSSIBLE WAY TO READ IT, also you’re just being hysterical… blah blah blah” when it’s frankly the case that if not a majority, then a sizable minority of watchers of this movie are definitely going to come away with “Zoey is a bitch”).
    I mean I only got that far in the comments, but I really do want to say that being prepared by other feminist reviewers of the film, I was very aware of how much of an asshole JGL is being in the film (which I didn’t finish, I only got to him applying for a cool job, did he even get it? I sort of care but also sort of don’t care to find out), and of seeing on occasion that perhaps the writers were attempting to point it out too.
    But it was very subtle them pointing it out, and frankly, in a world where people think that “Lolita” should even begin to mean “young girl who is seducing older men” based on reading the book of the same name, that just isn’t really good enough. Because ummmm… LOLITA, and yet there are still people who read it and go “yeah, she was a total whore”. So, really, if you want to make a statement about men refusing to think of female sexual partners as real live people with their own motivations and desires, you need to do a better job than someone in one blind date scene pointing out that the main character is a douche. Because, LOLITA. Anyway. I’m going to go read the rest of the comments, where I’m sure someone else will have made my point much better.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  41. Sarah TX wrote:

    OK, on reading most of the script, the impression I get is that the writer thinks the Tom character is quite foolish and naive, but doesn’t necessarily think he’s a douche.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  42. Dorinda wrote:

    I appreciate the heads-up about the Rabin book! Because I hadn been vaguely interested in reading it, but if I had, and had run into those parts unprepared, I guarantee I would have flung the book across the room and/or attempted to flush it down the toilet. Which would have ended up costing me in library fines and plumbing repair. So I think we’re all better off this way, where I can now forget that the book even exists, and my plumbing remains intact. WIN-WIN!

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  43. carovee wrote:

    I thought the film was pretty obvious about how unreliable JGL’s point of view was. In fact, the film makes that explicit in the awesome split screen party scene where JGL’s expectations for the evening are contrasted with what actually happens. Plus pretty much every other character tells him he’s over-romanticizing ZD’s character.

    I actually thought this movie was a great anecdote to the dudebro comedies by giving JGL actual (if misplaced) feelings and allowing ZD to have her own inner life.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  44. Sarah TX wrote:

    Except, well… Summer doesn’t really have an internal life, as far as I can tell. Perhaps the acting and directing really sells it, because in the screenplay, it’s just not there. Tom doesn’t understand her motivations, so neither does she and neither do we.

    I actually like the Summer character quite a lot, but unless the writer is an “unreliable writer”, I just don’t think Tom was intentionally meant to be a douchebag, unless (again) it was added by a sly director.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  45. Alii wrote:

    I watched this movie with boys. When I expressed disgust with how immature the main character was being, they jumped all over me for not being sensitive to how it /related/ to them on a gut level.

    So yes. I’m still angry about that. Especially when it’s obvious that the main character is being ridiculous.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  46. Elizabeth wrote:

    Actually Sarah I totally think that is what happened! I stand by mostly liking the movie, but as this excellent Jezebel article (http://jezebel.com/5348489/500-days-of-summer-writer-really-wants-his-ex+girlfriend-to-feel-bad-for-dumping-him) points out, the writer is a complete douchenozzle who basically wrote Getting Over Summer Marshall. I believe that the director made the choice to reframe the message of the movie as strictly a point-of-view.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  47. Lindsay wrote:

    Of course it would take a post on 500 Days of Summer to convince me to de-lurk. My Internet shyness is intense, but my hatred of that movie is possibly the most powerful force in the universe. I am not at all convinced that the viewer wasn’t supposed to sympathize with JGL. I can see how some people read it as satirical, but that was not my experience. Also, even if the point IS that he’s a douche, why do I need to spend eight dollars and two hours to WATCH him be a douche? It’s not like there’s a heartwarming ending where he recognizes the error of his ways and apologizes to every woman he’s talked shit about and also takes a vow of chastity until such time as he learns to act like a grown-ass human being! The ending is “Hey, that was fun! Let’s do that again!”

    Other things that bugged me:
    –Zooey Deschanel being the hottest woman in the world
    –The karaoke bar having “Here Comes Your Man” by the Pixies (NEVER. Never in this life except at the Imaginary Awesome Hipster Karaoke Bar Where No One Ever Sings “Redneck Woman” And PBR Is Free If You’re Drinking It Ironically)
    –The second the credits rolled, I stood up and announced, “That’s as much acoustic guitar indie pop as I ever want to listen to in my life, thanks.”

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  48. x. trapnel wrote:

    This seems like a good example of how difficult it is to make a critique of dominant cultural understandings that’s nuanced in any way. If there’s any ambiguity, most viewers will take the less-challenging, patriarchy-reaffirming interpretation–and this is especially true for those viewers who most need to be challenged. But if you abandon nuance, then not only are you limited artistically, you’re almost doomed commercially.

    I haven’t seen 500DoS; maybe the writer v. director explanation is correct as a matter of intent, who knows–but I think this interpretive problem applies regardless. As Deviante said: LOLITA!

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  49. roesmoker wrote:

    I kind of feel like this movie would have been a lot more interesting if, like, zooey deschanel was the main character.

    Prime candidate for fanfic or response film from Summer’s point of view. What if Zooey D made it herself? How awesome would that be.

    Now I kind of want to see this garbage just to laugh at Tom’s douchebaggery and drool over JGL.

    *raises hand in favor of 90′s boy hair*

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 2:10 am | Permalink
  50. Nila wrote:

    Hmm… to address the people who say Summer is a bitch in the movie: I think at times she IS a little ridiculous because she’s obviously aware that he’s falling in love with her (EVERYONE is aware), and even though she keeps telling him that she doesn’t want anything serious or long-term, she does keep dating him instead of acknowledging that they want different things and moving on to someone else. They stay together for over a year! That’s a long time to just “see where things go”, etc. It doesn’t make him any less of an idiot for expecting more, but I don’t think she’s completely blameless for the situation either. I’d argue that if the gender roles were switched, you’d call him an asshole. No?

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  51. carovee wrote:

    Summer’s inner life is only implied but its definitely there. This is JGL’s point of view, so we only know what he knows. But repeatedly Summer does and says things he doesn’t expect so clearly she has her thoughts and points of view that don’t revolve around him.

    I’ve haven’t read many articles about the director but I’m willing to bet that at least some of his motivation for saying what he does is to drum up interest for his film. “I have a cool idea for showing how projecting your wishes on your friend can mess up your relationship with her” is, unfortunately, not nearly as interesting as “I wrote this to get back at my ex”.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  52. al_zorra wrote:

    I sit with the group that believes that the audience is supposed to see that the boy isn’t getting it.

    As for the little salutation at the top of the film, it seemed that the director-writer was poking fun at himself and all of us who has gone through this from both sides (and we all pretty much have, haven’t we?). Though we know from the later perspective of more experience and more maturity and distance in time that we were expecting what wasn’t there / behaving as though it were — we are still fond of this, our younger, earlier self, and we remain loyal to it, in our fashion, and call her a bitch and him a bastard.

    Love, C.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  53. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with Nathan Rabin’s memoir being all about Nathan Rabin’s feelings. The Big Rewind isn’t intended to be a cultural study or third-person biography; I haven’t read it (yet?), but presumably everything else in the book is also all about Nathan Rabin’s feelings.

    This doesn’t excuse his whining that prostitutes don’t actually love him but that would be obnoxious whether he was actually whining or whether someone else noted that he whined.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink
  54. Victoria wrote:

    Ugh, this post says everything I thought about this movie. All my friends told me it was great and I’d love it, and after the first ten minutes I was so appalled by the casual, overt sexism I had to stop. When I told said friends this, the response was “Wait, really? I think you’re reading too much into it. Stop being so uptight, it’s really good”. So I watched the rest, expecting a turn-around where they let us know that actually, we weren’t supposed to sympathize with JGL’s self-indulgent, pathetic, irrational view of circumstances…..and then it didn’t come.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  55. Margaret wrote:

    I definitely agree with the person who pointed out that just because the screenwriter lacks perspective doesn’t mean the movie does. It’s seriously flawed, but not in how it makes Summer a “bitch,” but in how, at the end, it flattens out any semblance of character she’d had previously by making her nice.

    I mean, throughout the movie, the only distinctive feature of Summer (other than Zooey Deschannel’s looks) is the fact that, although she’s a girl, she’s not interested in falling in love or getting married. Especially not to Tom, even though she enjoys his company and likes having sex with him. I can handle her suddenly getting married– I guess. I don’t love it, but it’d be simple-minded to say that just because a person isn’t interested in marriage in general means they can never decide to marry a specific person.

    But the scene on the bench at the end, when she essentially comes back and tells Tom that he was right all along, and love REALLY IS all around and she was just blind? Yeah. That was just bullshit. Up until that point, it’s fine for her to be two-dimensional, because the point is she’s a cipher that Tom doesn’t understand. She has no clear dimensions because Tom is incapable of perceiving them, and Tom is telling the story. At that point she behaves in a way that ONLY a figment of someone’s imagination would behave. And pfffft. Any artistic integrity the movie had went straight out the fucking window.

    I do agree, however, with Sadie’s central point: this movie would NEVER have been made if Tom’s character had been female. It exists because our notions of gender are so fucked up that we assume any woman who’s not like babies babies babies OMG put a ring on it so we can have babies! is like a rare and beautiful unicorn.

    And that is such bullshit.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  56. Kristina wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the Nathan Rabin thing, as well. I’ve not read the book, (and after that synopsis neither need to nor want to), but given what was said here, I’d just end up going on some kind of a killing spree and wind up in jail and then that’s one less lady out there in the world! Bad things!

    It did remind me of the movie Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, an indie flick directed by John Krasinski, (yes, the ever-adorable Jim from The Office), which is incidentally available via Instant Watch on Netflix. I recommend watching it mostly for the last scene. I don’t really want to disclose because it’s a massive spoiler, but the Nathan Rabin I’m-so-sad-because-the-women-I-use-don’t-love-me thing reminded me painfully of that scene.

    So, to conclude this caffeine-induced rant, I think Sady should watch and share her feelings. There will be many, many serious lady feelings after that movie. I promise.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  57. Bri wrote:

    One of the best things this film has to offer is a reinterpretation of gendered behavior and how we still, fundamentally, perform gender the same way. Summer’s character seems to deviate from traditional gender roles in the beginning only to come right back to them at the end. And I can’t think of a better performer that JGL to play Tom as he seems to capture elements of emo, indie, and ‘marginal’ culture almost effortlessly. However, portraying him liking Morrissey and digging Mike Nichols’ The Graduate was too much of a cliche.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  58. Ariella wrote:

    I just… hated that movie, for all of the reasons you articulated so well in this post. First of all, I have to say that as soon as I saw that misogynist “dedication” to the director’s ex-girlfriend, I almost walked out of the theatre. It was only because I was at the “expensive” theatre that I stayed.

    And second, I love your analysis here. Summer IS very clear throughout the movie that she doesn’t want anything serious with JGL. And yet, he just can’t, or won’t, hear her. He assumes that because HE feels the emotion, she must feel the same way. That’s the way it happens in the real world, too. If the guy feels the emotion (for example, he asks you to marry him), but you don’t feel it also (you turn down his marriage proposal), then there’s something wrong with you.

    Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  59. Brad Nelson wrote:

    I was prepared to exit this movie feeling righteous indignation about why its gender dynamics are evil and unforgivable. But I came out of it thinking the film a somewhat effective if also totally flawed deconstruction of Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies and the misogynistic boys at their romantic centers, where every emotion is RAW and IDEALIZED and THE GREATEST POSSIBLE OPPORTUNITY FOR THIS GIRL FROM PLANET QUIRK. As others have said here, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is transparently an asshole through the whole of this film, made real and apparent to every audience member who isn’t a) your friend, apparently, or b) the screenwriter, apparently, by the scene in which JGL’s friends are all, “WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU BEING SUCH A BASTARD IF SHE WAS COMPLETELY HONEST WITH YOU? YOU MUST HATE WOMEN.” (MAYBE I AM READING TOO MUCH INTO THEIR CONVERSATION.)

    Also, though I am quick to harp on female characters that are unfortunately realized as brightly-colored cardboard, it… worked here? Because JGL doesn’t actually know who Summer is? At all?

    Regardless of ALL THAT, I would like to join the chorus that, despite loving Nathan Rabin in all his punchline-seeking Simpsons-quoting paragraph-transitions-lacking GLORY, I am so glad I did not invest in The Big Rewind or else I would have to undo it with my angry hands when I reached any paragraph involving him and those women who would touch but who would not FEEL him.

    Also, PJ Harvey’s “Snake” is the best therapy. You feel bigger than the whole fucking world. You kick it with your giant, indignant foot.

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  60. Nancy Shrew wrote:

    Thank you for sufficiently explaining every problem I had with that movie (just from the trailers) and others like it.

    I’d rather watch Joseph and Zooey in Manic.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  61. Clare wrote:

    Aw, I am all confused reading this post. Before I saw this movie I read some reviews on feminist websites and so was expecting to hate it, but I really didn’t think that the film portrayed Summer as the baddie; she sets clear boundaries, JGL gets all confused and by the end learns that he was being stupid. The bench scene at the end, agh, I don’t know, he’s still being a bit of a dick and doesn’t get it, but all the way through, it was like she did everything right by him, and it’s quite clearly portrayed (to me anyway) that it’s JGL that is doing it wrong.. For example in the scene where he is in the French B&W movie, the film is CLEARLY taking the piss out of his OTT reactions to everything. Even the Autumn bit I saw as like ‘OK, he learned a lot from this relationship and maybe he’s going to stop idolizing girls from afar and just ask someone out (who is also totally flirting with him and not just through drunken karaoke, hurrah!) I was also very much in love with Zooey’s clothes, and so I watched it again (it was an in-flight movie! and it was fashion research!) and didn’t change my opinion that much. HOWEVER, I am getting all sadface reading about people’s friends who think Summer was a bitch! I just didn’t come away with that at all! But maybe I just identified (idolised?!?!) Summer too much and wanted her kooky hair and dresses.

    But yeah, the dedication. Even awesome vintage frocks can’t make me think THAT was a good idea.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  62. Gwenyth wrote:

    Hmm,

    Having not seen the movie, but read this and a couple of quite different reviews, I find myself wondering if there is some kind of twisted genius at work here. A story that is designed for different people to see differently. Nice Guy(tm) can identify with the narrator, and take the movie seriously, whereas some women will see it as satire and identify with Deschanel’s character. Depending on your view, it changes what you see. Like the classic 2 faces/vase image.

    Then again, probably not. Sounds like I am giving the writer too much credit. More likely from the sound, the writer intended it seriously, and the director tried to make a satire, and what we ended up with was sort of a mess. Pop culture, gotta love it. Kinda.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  63. Alex wrote:

    I have to agree with the commenters who have pointed out that the film is not encouraging you to take JGL’s position. In fact, quite the contrary. But I’ve been in such stark disagreement with good friends lately over how to take the message of specific films that I’m tempted to invoke a little “reader-response criticism.” Different expectations encourage different viewpoints, etc. But, when all is said and done, I don’t think you’re right on this. It’s entirely possible you are, and I’m just sympathetic to Deschanel’s character because in real life I’m sympathetic to her character. Don’t know.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  64. jennygadget wrote:

    re: Tom as an unreliable narrator – I’d buy that more if the writing didn’t undermine that conclusion via

    1) the dedication at the beginning
    2) the fact that his NEW CRUSH IS NAMED AUTUMN
    3) oh, and she’s an architect! just like him!…a not so subtle indication that she is going to be a up to his standards and also not a bitch like Summer

    Also, some of the interactions with MGG (the best friend) bugged me. He has the line that *should be* the theme of the movie, especially if one is going with the whole unreliable narrator theme. (“Robin is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real”)

    But it’s absolutely not reinforced anywhere*. It is, in fact, as I just pointed out, undermined with the whole sucktacular Autumn thing. It’s also undermined by the best friend often being an ass. Which is frustrating, because it should reinforce it: “hey Douchy!Tom! look, even (MGG) gets it!” but the lack of reinforcement of that idea anywhere else in the movie, combined with the best friend often being an ass, makes it seem more insincere than anything else. Really, the only thing that makes that line at all convincing is that MGG can make you believe fucking anything.

    *I know people will argue that the whole split screen bit showing his expectations versus reality reinforce that idea. But I’m going to disagree, because *clearly* the fake Summer is better than the real Summer. And no where in the movie do we actually *see* a real Robin. Or a real Summer that is better than the fake Summer simply by virtue of being real.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  65. kirkpatrickpat wrote:

    This post was like: TOTALLY AGREEABLE! take on 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. I agree with what you said about the cheap SENTIMENTALITY and troubling DOUBLE STANDARD at the center of this movie that was both lolza! and OMGWTF? The movie tries (pathetically) to transcend the Hallmark gooeyness* of its premise but fails.

    *That JGL is LITERALLY responsible for.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  66. I.C. wrote:

    You know, reading this made me realize how brilliant High Fidelity is. Or rather, how it succeeds in a place where 500 Days of Summer fails (full disclosure, I have yet to *finish* watching 500 Days, but I’ve seen enough to know you’re so fucking on point). As much as Rob (the boyfriend) wants Laura (the girlfriend) back, and as much as the movie (and the book) is set up so that we as an audience sympathize with the character of Rob, it never does so in a way that comes at Laura’s expense. He gets mad at certain points, sure, and she does some things (well one thing is particular) is is very “what the fuck??,” but she’s never portrayed as a bitch, or a slut, or a bad person. He never calls her any names, his friends don’t call her any names . . . in fact he ends up (rightfully so) getting called an asshole. Laura is allowed her motivations, her friends, her career, her own inner life. And apparently unlike Gordon-Levitt’s character, Rob has an actual end-of the movie, “i’ve been a real ass and i’m sorry” epiphany/realization.

    See, I knew I loved that movie for a reason.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  67. Becca wrote:

    Woah… I definitely had a completely different reading of the film. Yeah, JGL’s character was mad at Summer, and called her bad names and made her sound like a monster… but the point of the movie was that she wasn’t. The point of the movie, even though it’s told from JGL’s POV, is that HE was the one being stupid. I LOVED the movie, it seemed like a real situation that would happen (that I’ve been in, genders flipped), and how real people deal with it.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  68. Jaime-Leigh wrote:

    Sady! I don’t, as a habit, disagree with you. But I just got to this, and I think you have missed something key: Summer is kind of a bitch. She did this all by design! And here is where I copy and paste from my blog:

    The movie was cute, in a sort of toned down quirky-Phoebe “look at us being cute but we’re not trying to be cute we’re just cute, come on!” way. (I never respond well to that which relies so heavily on the saccharine.) Undoubtedly, the very endearing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance kept the movie from venturing into totally and completely cloying territory. But what I really want to talk about is Summer, of course.

    I disliked her character on a pretty deep level, in large part because I know her schtick by heart. I know it because it’s mine, too. Really, she stole my act.

    To start, you choose the dude who is obviously insecure, obviously inexperienced, obviously painfully aware the you are way, way out of his league. These kinds of guys will allow you to punish them indefinitely for merely having fallen in love with somebody so wonderful and elusive as you. Kiss them in the copy room and every middle school fantasy they’ve ever conjured has just come true. Fuck them once and you own them. The “that guy?” reactions from other dudes? Your lifeblood. Only a narcissist could really understand, and a narcissist you are. You don’t want to label things because you’re sort of a flower child insomuch as you’re very busy being nymphlike and flitting around saying ridiculous, vapid shit that, to them, sounds profound, but in a very subtle way, because you’re a butterfly and you can’t be pinned down and if you were all LaDiDa with a brain and a backbone you’d be Annie Hall and you can’t really be Annie Hall because you’re supposed to be authentic, and modern. So you torture them with your ambivalence for no better reason than that they don’t know better than to not let you, and what do you know, a few weeks later you’re married! You don’t really have any answers, because butterflies don’t have answers, just those pretty wings. And of course you show up at that special bench because it just wouldn’t be the same if you couldn’t twist the knife a little and know that even though he’s moving on and maybe getting over you he can never really be over you, because you’re everywhere. And you wouldn’t have it any other way. Because you’re a sadist. Oh, and a sadist who warned him. Yes, it is important that you warned him—how else would you come out of it blameless and batting your eyes? But oh, those eyes! Surely poison couldn’t taste so sweet?

    And those are my thoughts. Summer is a Sadist, and while JGL’s character might also be flawed, he really isn’t the bad guy here. Really.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  69. Aine wrote:

    Saw it on a plane and spent the movie with two thoughts uppermost:
    1. ZOMG Joseph Gordon-Levitt=HOT DAMN he got good-looking.

    2. Summer spent the WHOLE time they were together looking at him like he had three heads. Like, every time he did or said something scary and clingy, she just looked at him like “WTF? Did we not JUST have this conversation five minutes ago?” I couldn’t see why she’d be in any kind of relationship with him- he was annoying, immature, and very clearly did not listen to a word she said.

    I felt bad for the guy, I really did. But I also thought he was an idiot, and that Summer should have dropped him WAAAAY sooner.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  70. Natalie wrote:

    I really liked this post, read it before I saw the movie, and was fully prepared to agree with you, but here’s the catch. All the terms, skank, whore, bitch etc. are said BEFORE Tom hooks up with her. Because the movie is told in back and forth flashback this can be hard to discern (in that case it may not matter when the terms are used, just that they are). But all of the derogatory slut terms are used before she goes out on a date with him or even sleeps with him. Meaning the words are used in frustration over not getting this amazing girl instead of branding her after the break up.

    Also, I think the girl Tom goes on the blind date with towards the end of the movie pretty much embodies your point. The movie sympathizes with Tom’s heart break, but still shows that he agreed to relationship terms he didn’t stick with.

    I love your writing, it always makes me look at pop culture from a new perspective. :)

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  71. Nathan Rabin wrote:

    You make some constructive criticisms of my memoir, but you also misrepresent big parts of it. You’re right in that I could have been more empathetic about my college girlfriend’s abortion, but for me, writing about it in terms of my emotions was a matter of taking responsibility for my role in creating an unplanned pregnancy. I was writing about my experiences as a 19 year old who got his girlfriend pregnant the first time he had sex and was terrified and sad. I wasn’t making a political statement and I did not know what was going on inside my girlfriend’s mind at the time.

    Also, the chapter about the prostitute was about how I had lurched into such a crippling, suicidal depression that I was reduced to doing things I was deeply ashamed of out of a desperate need for any kind of human connection. I don’t know how that translates into bragging or talking about how much I love paying for sex.

    Lastly, you talk about clear boundaries existing between me and the polyamorist without mentioning that I asked her to not tell me about other people she was having sex with. She agreed. Then, she decided to tell me about a giant orgy she had participated in. I didn’t want or expect her to fall in love with me. I just felt like not wanting to hear about other people she had had sex with was a fairly reasonable request.

    I tried to write a book that was emotionally honest. I think I’m very upfront about the fact that a lot of my past relationship problems stemmed from my neuroses and hang-ups and insecurities. I very much appreciate a feminist critique of my memoir but I feel like you’re being pretty selective in what you choose to reveal about it.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  72. Sady wrote:

    @Nathan: First of all, hi. Second, I’m always open for some criticism of my own writing. God knows, I’m not perfect, and working on being more generous and less gratuitously snarky is something that I often have to do. Which is why I have that whole Don’t Write About Writers rule, which I OBVIOUSLY broke right here. Me = flawed! And I want to emphasize that there is so much that you’ve done that I’ve really liked! And I want to emphasize that up-front, because I get the feeling we’re going to disagree on this topic.

    So, I mean, first of all, we have to talk about the fact that you wrote a fairly long memoir, and I mentioned it in a post that was about (a) a movie, (b) my dating experiences, and (c) your memoir. Not necessarily in that order. All of those things were used to draw certain connections and point to what I think is a trend in human behavior, and how people — men and women — are expected to act differently, or do act differently, around what is a really really common dating situation. I used more than one source to draw connections and illustrate a pattern. You may not feel it’s fair or right for me to mention that book without writing about the entire book, or to only mention it in the context of some other things, and I could definitely empathize with that, even if I don’t agree with it. It sucks to write a long thing, and then to have somebody write a short thing about your long thing, and for that short thing to be unfavorable. Okay. But I mentioned the parts of your book that were relevant to the piece I was writing. I do not believe that I was misrepresenting your work; I was representing, accurately, my own reactions to certain parts of it. Those might not be the reactions you’d want, but they were there. And, I mean, “selectivity:” If I tried to write a really and truly and fully complete critique of every page in your book, it would probably be way longer than the book. Every “reviewer” (and I put quote marks around it, because I’m one of those only in the loosest sense of the word) has to choose what parts of a work he or she will discuss, and which ones she won’t.

    Second: I think it’s not only fair but necessary to distance you from the character in the memoir. Even writing, in a completely casual way, about my own personal experiences — as I did right here, and which I was actually criticized for by another person (not the dude in question, BTW; I don’t know that he even read it) who was around the scene at the time, and experienced some of the events, and saw them differently — has made me at least marginally aware that any given human experience is pretty complex and full of details and you have to choose which ones to include and which ones not to, and the experience invariably ends up being written down in a way that renders it incomplete and gives only one really specific take on the situation. It’s that whole Lucille Clifton poem: “they want me to remember their memories, and i keep on remembering mine.” And that whole process creates a character who’s not precisely YOU, but close to being you. So, like, let’s talk about the character of Nathan Rabin in this book. And make it clear that we’ve never interacted beyond these comments, and I don’t know you, like, at all. Because, this dude? This character, Nathan Rabin? I really don’t like his attitudes toward women.

    Now: I’m guessing, from stuff you’ve said in other essays and whatnot, that you’re a dude who is not precisely hostile to feminism. You’ve mentioned it, and you’ve made feminist criticisms of things that I agreed with, in fact. So let’s talk about three things — abortion, sex work, and expectations of how women should express themselves sexually — that are undeniably key feminist issues, all of which you address in your book.

    1. Abortion.

    I think, given that people have literally been killed over it, and given its incredibly long history of challenge and struggle, it’s pretty obvious that abortion is inevitably a political issue. Even if you aren’t trying to write a “political” take on it. What’s often overlooked, in the politicization of abortion, is the actual woman who needs one, and her choice. And what’s overlooked, specifically in your account of this abortion, is the woman who got one, and her choice. The emphasis in the below-quoted passage is mine.

    “I was suddenly faced with an agonizing decision: abortion, giving the baby up for adoption, or raising a child I couldn’t afford. My convictions changed on an hourly basis. I made up my mind over and over again to do the honorable thing. I’d marry Judy, drop out of school, and get a second job. Then I’d come to my senses and realize just how impossible that’d be. I doubted Judy could abstain from drugs or alcohol for nine months… I wrestled with the most agonizing decision of my life, two antithetical futures stretched out before me. In one, I was a harried father with big black rings under my eyes, two jobs, and a wife and child I hadn’t chosen and couldn’t support. In the other, I was freed from the responsibility and obligation of parenthood, but burdened eternally with the guilt of having snuffed out something I had created through naivete and stupidity. They were two different visions of hell. I couldn’t envision a happy ending to my dilemma.

    Here’s the thing, though: You, or the character Nathan Rabin, refer to this repeatedly as “my decision,” “my dilemma.” The character refers to his future, his agony, his feelings. His choice, which affects him. And this character isn’t the one who is pregnant. Nowhere in this passage is the choice to abort or not referred to as Judy’s choice, Judy’s dilemma, Judy’s pregnancy, which affects Judy’s future, not to mention Judy’s actual, physical body. It’s a passage about abortion written as if the man has the sole choice to decide whether or not his girlfriend will abort. We’re never given a conversation with Judy in which she asserts a preference for one or the other. In life, outside of the pages of this memoir, did she tell you that you had to be the one to decide, and that your decision would be solely responsible for the outcome? I find that pretty unlikely, but maybe it happened. We don’t know, because Judy, Judy’s thoughts, Judy’s feelings, Judy’s position on abortion, and Judy’s choice to have one — seriously, it skips from a description of the character’s feelings to the phrase “after the abortion” — are entirely eliminated. Judy is really only mentioned, in this passage, to give a bad word about her stability or credibility (“I doubted Judy could abstain from drugs or alcohol,” on the same page in which the character talks about smoking pot to deal with his emotions) and to relegate her to a faceless “wife” that the character “hasn’t chosen.” I mean: You used the verb “choice.” Were you unaware of the other, extremely common uses of that verb, in the context of abortion? On purely feminist grounds, writing about abortion in this way is extremely objectionable. Because it takes agency and focus away from a woman, and places her life and pregnancy in a context where a man and his decision are the most important part of the equation. And then, when Judy is given an inner life, however briefly, it’s this:

    After the abortion, Judy sank into a debilitating depression.

    “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly.”

    That’s a quote from a Ben Folds song, and a quote that I find really objectionable in context, for much the same reasons that I find the above passage objectionable. We’re given to know that something is going on with Judy — something probably related to the abortion, and the choice of hers we didn’t ever get to hear about, something severe and worrisome and, in your words, “debilitating” — but it’s one line, after two fairly long paragraphs about the character’s feelings. And then we switch right back to his perspective, his feelings, via Ben Folds. Judy is the brick, the inanimate object, the thing that’s dragging him down. He, despite her “debilitating depression,” is the one to worry about, the one who’s really drowning. You go back to her, and spend two shorter paragraphs dealing with her inner life (she’s given half of the next short paragraph, and then the paragraph after that uses the verb “we”) but that moment — Judy has a debilitating depression, here’s how I feel about it, she’s dragging me down — sticks out. The chapter is dedicated to that song, implying that we’re meant to find it highly relevant, a sort of sneak preview of what we’re meant to take away from the chapter. What I took away from the passage in which you used this song was the message — whether intentional or not — that Judy’s experience of the abortion simply doesn’t matter. Her choices don’t matter, and her feelings don’t matter. What matters is how she affects the male narrator. You can say that it’s your memoir, and that everything is couched in terms of how it affects the narrator because that’s how memoirs work, and that is fair in one sense. But you, as a writer, had a choice to give Judy a choice. You had a choice to make her feelings and her decisions equally important to your description of the abortion. It wasn’t an option you exercised.

    2. Sex Work.

    I definitely feel for you, on the depression front. I think your writing on that topic tends to be the best in the book. And I’ve seen people go through suicidal depressions, and been through some severe depressive episodes myself. Actually, you don’t need to know this, but my brother has a mental illness that results in a really high number of suicides. (Being passionate about attitudes toward disability and people with disabilities is, I think, something else we might very well have in common and agree on.) So that matters, and I have empathy there.

    However, the key issue in the chapter about you paying for handjobs is not that you were depressed, but that you paid for some handjobs. Depression has never been powerful enough to get someone to drive to a place that sells handjobs, order a handjob, receive a handjob, and pay for the handjob, without his conscious knowledge or volition. And I’m sorry to be snarky there, but your defense above — “I was depressed, so,” almost as if there were a direct causal relationship between the two — seems not to take that into account.

    Now: My own feelings about sex work are complicated. There are some women who legitimately choose sex work, from a variety of other options, and actually enjoy and like the work. It’s important to value what those women have to say, and not just demonize every form of sex work outright. There are other women, however, who dislike the work in the extreme, and are even severely traumatized by it, and who wind up in it due to poverty or marginalization — who would not be doing it, if they had other and better options. There’s forced prostitution; there’s human trafficking. Given the amount of information available about most bordellos — how they hire or buy their workers, whether the place is ethically and non-abusively run, how much of their earnings the workers there keep and whether they’re allowed to set their own boundaries in regard to the work they do — clients, such as yourself, often simply have no way of knowing whether the woman is there because she wants to be, or because she has to be, or whether she’s literally being forced into it. Clients often simply don’t know, to be perfectly blunt and risk pissing you off in the extreme, how much they’re hurting or sexually traumatizing the woman who’s servicing them. It might even be a slim chance, but given what kind of chance it is, I’d really strongly recommend against going to any place about which you don’t have detailed information about the operations and policies, no matter how strong the need for “human connection” might be.

    But framing paid sex as a form of “human connection” is just another re-iteration of the problems with the Judy passage. There, again, women, and things that legitimately affect them, and can actually be oppressive or violent or profoundly traumatic for them, take a second place to the feelings of the male character. There, again, they are primarily important in terms of how they satisfy the male narrator. There, again, their inner lives are dismissed.

    There are actually two sex workers in the chapter; one satisfactory, and one not. Which denotes that you liked the experience well enough to go back a second time. And it’s given a chapter in the book, which denotes that you don’t have a problem telling strangers about it. The first, Barbie, is described as follows:

    “I imagine that when Barbie was a little girl she didn’t dream of someday giving handjobs to strangers while listening halfheartedly to elevator music, just as I couldn’t have anticipated that when I belted out “Glory of Love” I…”

    And then it goes into a description of a song, which lasts for the rest of the page, part of the next page, includes some description casting the male narrator as the real victim in this scenario due to his feelings (“I was now a scared, lost, lonely man”) and ends when the male narrator ejaculates. That’s one line speculating on the many very serious problems Barbie may very well have encountered on her way to this particular handjob, and it’s given less narrative weight than a song from the Karate Kid II soundtrack. Barbie then says, “Would you like a hug?” This rates her a good review. And it gets the narrator to go back to the bordello. Here is how the second encounter is described:

    “She nevertheless felt the need to make small talk — maybe that’s an occupational hazard — and it gradually came out that we’d both graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1999. And now here she was, straining to bring me to orgasm, the stern expression on her face betraying nothing — not fake happiness, not discomfort, just the stern determination of someone doing a job no matter how distasteful they find it. I yearned for the sweetness and odd vulnerability — however feigned — that characterized my first encounter at Hello, My Concubine. Two years earlier, we might have been classmates. Now I was paying her for something that barely constituted sex. I was tempted to feel sorry for her. [Again, emphasis mine.] She very well could have felt sorry for me. After all, my fellow Badger left our sordid encounter a hundred and sixty dollars richer while I left with a much lighter wallet and a pervasive sense of shame.”

    Again, we cast the male narrator as the real victim here. Again, we just barely speculate on the women’s potential unhappiness. And again, the stakes for the women are really damn high. Objectively higher than they are for the male narrator, by far. He’s disappointed because his handjob wasn’t friendly enough. But sex workers are typically paid to, among other things, fake enthusiasm and friendliness. It’s how they get repeat customers. (You didn’t come back after encountering an unenthusiastic sex worker, did you?) We can reasonably assume that a relatively unfriendly, unenthusiastic sex worker is either very bad at her job, or going through a truly hellacious time of it. Which matters less, and is spoken about less, than how the male narrator feels about the handjob quality. Which matters less than whether this woman — who might very well be poor, abused, addicted, desperate, desperately unhappy, experiencing real and severe sexual trauma in this moment described — offers him “human connection.” And it doesn’t, one assumes, stop him from going through with the handjob in the first place.

    I trust you can see the more obvious feminist problems with this.

    So then we get to the open relationship. This comment is already longer than some posts, so I’m going to see if it will publish at this length, and then come back for that one.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  73. Sady wrote:

    3. O

    Okay, so: I just got back from a conference where I participated in a panel about slut-shaming as a feminist issue. Chloe Angyal, who was on the panel with me, wrote a really good recap, which I recommend you read, because this response is already really long, and I sort of doubt that you want me to make it longer by going into a detailed description of why it’s not cool or good or OK to shame a woman and cast her as dirty or selfish or disgusting for having too much sex, or too many kinds of sex, or too much sex of which you don’t approve, or basically just being too sexy. I mention this because I am going through the chapter now, and I am finding a ton of slut-shaming. To the extent that it’s hard even to locate a specific line to illustrate it; it’s really woven in throughout the text. Here’s one bit that stood out:

    “She fired off an e-mail where she confided that she’d hung out with another male friend later that night and even though he’d wanted to fuck she nobly declined. To her, this was a decision of massive, potentially life-changing importance. Where she previously empowered herself to fuck around indiscriminately, she now empowered herself to abstain from sex. At least for a couple of days. She seemed shocked and delighted that she’d somehow managed to spend several hours with two different vaguely fuckable guys in a single night without giving in to her animal instinct.”

    The language here is openly mocking and degrading — look at this stupid whore and how much she wants to put out! Even when she’s not putting out, she’s so stupid about putting out! Because she puts out so much! — and it continues to be so throughout the text. The narrator’s desire to have sex with O, on the other hand, is never degraded in that way. There’s self-mockery, but only of the emotions. Not the desire to have sex. Which O apparently has, and is satisfying, in the way that feels right for her, and in the way that the narrator verbally told her he was okay with. In a situation in which we can verify that they are both consenting adults operating free of coercion. “Sadistic sexual sociopath,” another term that’s used to describe O (and this is BEFORE she breaks the rule about not talking about her sex life, which comes in very late in the game and after she’s been roundly abused verbally by the narrator for many choices other than that rule-breaking) seems less appropriate than “person who believed what someone told her, and acted accordingly.” It’s not precisely a sign of evil intent to say “this is what I want,” hear the words “I want this also,” and to proceed to do the thing you’ve both said you wanted. A truly bad person, it seems to me, would have lied.

    And the thing is, the relationship starts out with O talking about her sex life. The fact that she talks so much about her sex life is mentioned as one of the things that attracts the narrator to her. She is open and clear about the fact that she is not into monogamy, and the narrator says back to her that he isn’t either.

    Now: People make bad decisions. People get into relationships that they know aren’t the relationships they want. People even fuck up the all-important verbal negotiation, where someone explicitly asks if X, Y, or Z is okay, by saying “yes” when they mean “no,” because they’re afraid to lose the relationship. As the story in the above post makes semi-clear, I’ve done that, in big and small ways. People have done that with me, and I feel legitimately terrible about hurting them by going with what they said; I ask myself constantly if I could have somehow asked more, paid more attention, figured out that they were just telling me what I wanted to hear or what they wanted to believe they felt at the time. Me = flawed, I said it up front and I’ll say it again. Me = deeply flawed. And, to give you full credit, you repeatedly stress that the narrator’s choice to say “yes” to a non-monogamous relationship when he meant “no” was his choice, and a bad one. But somehow it’s O who is the sadist, the sociopath, the castrator (“castrated” is used), the emasculator (“emasculated” is also used), the one who turns him into a “eunuch,” the manipulator, the one who is “narcissistic,” and “self-righteous,” the one who willfully delivers hurt, the villain, the dirty mean slut.

    We can maybe discuss the whole castration/emasculation issue in a second, because I think it’s telling that the narrator’s feelings about this are described as an issue of manhood or lack thereof. But first, a quick aside about how this is all framed as a moral issue.

    As it happens, I don’t agree with you on the issue of monogamy. I know people — like myself — for whom monogamy is basically the only thing that provides satisfaction, and I know people who are in really comfortable, happy non-monogamous situations, and I know a ton of people who switch back and forth between the two — like, for example, hooking up or having casual sexual relationships with a bunch of people when they’re single, and getting into monogamous relationships when they meet someone they really like. I can be fine with all of those people’s behaviors, and I can also be fine with the fact that I like monogamy better than anything else when it comes to me. This would be irrelevant, except that an explicit defense of monogamy as the only kind of relationship that is okay forms a part of the rationale to demonize O:

    “Monogamy is the worst system we’ve got except for everything else. Polyamory is like Marxism: Great in theory but impossible in practice. The problem with Marxism and polyamory is that they each deny mankind’s true nature. Remove jealousy, greed, and possessiveness from humanity and both systems would flourish. But you’d also excise much of what makes us human.”

    Which, I suppose, raises the question of whether O is human, because she seems to be doing polyamory (I don’t like that term, because of the hippie connotations you so aptly describe, but let’s roll with it) just fine, and not to be feeling any of that possessiveness or jealousy. You go at this again, in more overtly slut-shaming fashion, later: “[It] doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner, just ’cause, you know, you’re sucking some stranger’s cock.” There are some people for whom this is actually true. I’m not necessarily one of them. I think this might even be pretty rare. But this exists in the world. The defense of monogamy as the only system that works — when, in actuality, it may be the only system that works for the narrator — allows him to cast O as not just maddeningly sexual, and having a sexuality that exists outside of his control and which makes him angry, but as stupid, naive, immoral, a “zealot,” misguided, wrong.

    And then it all falls apart, when she tells him (after one failed attempt to sever the sexual relationship) that she doesn’t want to have sex with men any more, goes away, has sex with a bunch of other people, comes back, characterizes their relationship as “not physically intimate,” and calls it a “friendship.” And here’s where the castrated/emasculated/eunuch thing comes into play. It’s clear that O fucked shit up here, too — saying that she wanted to stop having sex with the narrator, then having sex with him, for example, which is a stupid mistake — but the language in which the narrator describes his feelings is this:

    “I told O about how painful it was for her to constantly thrust her sexuality in my face, only to coquettishly demur, ‘But it’s not for you.’”

    I mean: That is really the issue, isn’t it? The fact that it’s not “for him?” Her sexuality is fine, as long as he is in control of it. If she is in control of it, and persists in doing things with it that he may not like (even if he’s verbally consented to it) then she gets all of those nasty adjectives we’ve listed above.

    4. CONCLUSION

    I’m in a really awkward situation here. Because I do like your writing so much, and I don’t think that you’re a bad or willfully sexist person. Me = flawed, everybody = flawed, flawed people can be really lovely and I bet you totally are. And I don’t identify you 100% with the narrator in the book — I think you’re probably consciously portraying this guy as someone who is not to be emulated, a lot of the time, maybe even someone to openly disapprove of. But you’re sort of calling my truthfulness into account here. So I don’t know if I’m being asked to give my account of the book a reasoned defense — and, I mean, I hope that if nothing else this proves that I read the book and can cite specific textual reasons for my reaction to it — or what. And I empathize, to some degree, with your reaction. But I wish you’d said that I was too mean, or too ad hominem, both criticisms which would be totally valid, rather than implying that I was willfully trying to misrepresent your work. Part of me, even the largest part of me, wants to just say what I think you want to hear, because I know I can be mean and ad hominem, and I really bet reading this must have sucked for you. Thinking about how to move through the world and say what I have to say and stand on my convictions without just gratuitously hurting people is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, actually, precisely because it’s something that I’m not always good at. But this is also sort of an integrity issue; if you come into my blog and leave a public comment that is critical, and I immediately back down because I want you to perceive me as “nice” and be able to co-exist with me in the world, that means that I can’t stand behind my own work. And I have to stand behind my work, for precisely the same reason I have to defend myself from charges of misrepresentation, because insofar as my readers or anyone I might work with is concerned, I am only as good as my ability to mean what I say and to say what I believe to be the truth. So, again: I really apologize for any hurt I might cause you, and it isn’t personal, and I hope you can see why these three selected passages — which did, yes, stand out to me, and which I wrote about for that reason — inspired the response they did. And I hope things can continue in a more or less OK way. You’re super funny, and you have a great eye and ear, and you write about pop culture wonderfully, and there are just really a ton of things I like and respect about your work. I studied your work for style when I was trying to learn to write. That is how much I respect it. And I know we disagree and it’s probably bound to be personal, but I really do hope we can at least respect each other, even though I would probably hate me like Satan for writing any or all of the above. I’ll continue to respect you as a writer, and your accomplishment, no matter what.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

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  7. links for 2010-08-05 « Embololalia on Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 2:02 pm

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