DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Two of this summer's biggest comedies are "The Proposal," starring Sandra Bullock as a publishing executive, and "The Ugly Truth" starring Kathryn Heigl as a TV producer. Although both were executive produced by their female stars, some critics have called the films misogynist for their portraits of their heroines. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has some thoughts on the ways our movies now see women.
JOHN POWERS: It's one of the tricky things about pop culture, that you never know for sure whether it'll be ahead of the times or behind them. African-American music, for example, was a trailblazing force. It helped make black culture part of the mainstream, decades before anyone dreamed we might ever have a president named Obama. You can see the flip side of this in our current movies' treatment of women. When Hollywood isn't ignoring them altogether, it's usually putting them down, even in romantic comedies supposedly aimed at the female audience. Nobody gets ruder treatment than career women, who are routinely portrayed as bossy, uptight and utterly without personal lives. What they need, we're supposed to think, is a man.
But before they can get one, they must have a mortifying comeuppance. In "The Proposal," Sandra Bullock plays a boss from hell who's literally forced to kneel before her good guy assistant. In the lousy new comedy "The Ugly Truth," Kathryn Heigl plays a control-freak TV producer forced to hire a loutish commentator - that's Gerard Butler, who gives her a pair of vibrator panties. Predictably, it's the lewd beast who tames the brainy, high-powered beauty. Here, Heigl's calling her neighbor, a handsome doctor, for a date, when Butler intervenes to give her romantic advice.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Ugly Truth")
Ms. KATHRYN HEIGL (Actor): (As Abby Richter) Hi. This is Abby Richter calling for Dr. Anderson.
Unidentified Woman: Hold.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Yes. I'll hold.
Mr. GERARD BUTLER (Actor): (As Mike) What are you doing? Who are you calling?
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Shh! Shh!
Mr. ERIC WINTER (Actor): (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Dr. Anderson.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Hi, Colin. This is Abby.
Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Everything okay?
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) I was just calling to let you know how much I enjoyed meeting you last night. And I was thinking we should go out for dinner sometime.
Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Oh.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) There is a new French bistro in town, and an art opening that got amazing reviews, so I was thinking we could go on Friday.
Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Oh, Friday. Wow.
(Soundbite of phone hanging up)
(Soundbite of dial tone)
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter): What the hell are you doing?
Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) I'm saving you. He was blowing you off.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) He wasn't blowing me off.
(Soundbite of struggle)
Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) He will be expecting you to call him and when you don't, he'll call back.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) How you know?
Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) Because I know how men operate. If you want it to work out with this guy, then you'll listen to me and you'll do exactly as I say. You've probably already done irreparable damage with your psycho-aggressive, control-freak phone call. It might even be too late. And if you do salvage the situation, you'll never be more than Abby, his desperate neighbor.
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) I'm not desperate.
(Soundbite of phone ring)
Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Did you think I sounded desperate?
POWERS: Of course, American movies have long hand problems with career women. Rosalind Russell once estimated that she'd played 23 different versions of what she termed Alice in Careerland: strong, working women who, deep down, actually wanted to be housewives. Things were only slightly more enlightened in the '50s and early '60s, when Doris Day occupied the executive suite on her way into bed with Rock Hudson. But if the sexual politics of such movies were old-fashioned, they were essentially in line with the official attitudes of the time, at least they weren't contemptuous. All that changed with the women's movement.
Although feminism has inarguably made society better, it also unleashed an ongoing psychic backlash. Even as women began attaining positions of power, Hollywood didn't reflect how this change actually entered our collective experience. Instead, it began cooking up dark, paranoid fantasies about unwomenly women and pushy shrews. It served up a parade of Prada-wearing devils, like Sigourney Weaver's demonic exec in "Working Girl," Tilda Swinton's brittle corporate shyster in "Michael Clayton," and pretty much the whole career of Glenn Close, at least since she boiled that bunny in "Fatal Attraction."
This drives me particularly crazy, because I've spent my whole life surrounded by strong career women. My mother ran a market research company, and my sister is an international consultant. When I was a professor, my office-mate taught feminist theory. I've worked for female bosses at LA Weekly, Vogue and here at FRESH AIR. And here's what I've learned: Just like career men - now there's a term - every career woman has her own personal style. What they all have in common is that I've never seen any of them behave remotely like Weaver, Swinton, Close or Heigl. Why then do they act this way on screen? You see, even as women were gaining more power in society, the movie audience was changing. The key demographic became adolescent males.
And if there's one inescapable truth about teenage boys, it's that their exploding libidos are shot through with anxiety, especially a terror of powerful women. Their idea of a likable career woman is a good-hearted hooker, like Heather Graham's character in this summer's biggest comedy, "The Hangover." Sad to say, such laddish notions have actually been internalized by many powerful women in Hollywood. That's why I was happy to see several big reviews rebuke the women behind "The Ugly Truth." Heigl, the three female screenwriters and Sony co-chair Amy Pascal, who greenlighted a picture that disdains a woman like herself.
The movie is a worthy target not because it's so singularly awful, it isn't, but because its misogyny is so representative. Now, if you asked Pascal, Heigl and the writers, I'm sure they'd say they were simply trying to make something that the audience likes, and perhaps they have. The movie had a big opening weekend. Still, if things are to get better, it has to start with powerful women in Hollywood refusing to write, star in or finance films that wantonly disrespect women. After all, Stepin Fetchit made movies that the audience liked, too, but that's not what anyone remembers him for.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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