Pain. Loss. Death. Universal fears represent the inherent dynamics of a single emotion. They are things which happen to all of us; terror and comfort, hand in hand, considering we will experience them, but it’s a guarantee we don’t have to go through the painful experience alone.
The process of aging is one thing which, unlike the cold hand of death inching closer and closer to the lifeline hovering somewhere between our heart and head, impacts each of us outwardly as much as the pain of something like death can only alter internally.
There is age the media defines as “graceful” (I assume Meryl Streep fits into this category, whereas Madonna does not), and there is age we tend to associate with wisdom, knowledge, and respect—regardless of one’s external appearance (Jimmy Carter, I’m looking at you).
The movies often act as a therapeutic release for our little human hearts’ existential dilemmas. How we deal with such emotions, fears, and anxieties is a test in itself. We see sadness onscreen, logically recall those things which make us sad, relate them to what’s occurring on the silver screen, and shed a tear alongside our favorite actor and the dozens of other cinephilic souls dotting the theater’s interior.
So then, let us take for example two high-profile films released just last year, both of which “deal” with the art of aging in drastically different ways; Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, and dissect them in terms of their highly gendered approach to just exactly how we grow old–and how some of us choose to deal with it.
Let’s start with Bad Teacher, the inferior of the two, and discuss why it strikes as such a juvenile attempt to glorify spitting in the face of the social responsibility that comes with being an adult. The film follows Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), a teacher at an Illinois middle school whose only qualification for molding the minds of America’s youth seems to be her ability to give excellent blow jobs to whichever male is doing the hiring; that isn’t intended as a sexist joke, but rather something that isn’t explicitly stated in the film but also isn’t entirely too far outside of Bad Teacher’s ideology and comedic reach to assume.
Elizabeth does drugs at school, dresses provocatively, is the sexual fantasy of each of her male students (and one lesbian gym teacher—har har), possesses the sole goal of saving enough money to purchase herself breast implants, and actively welcomes all of the pathetic, sexually-charged attention that is thrown her way. Take, for example, the annual car wash the school holds to raise money for some unknown cause; we are to assume that the school uses the money to better the education of the children, but Elizabeth seeks only to embezzle the money to put towards her new breasts. So, she shows up—Daisy Dukes in tow—to suggestively slide down the hoods of customer’s cars and pocket the money her students actually worked for. In essence, she doesn’t need the breast implants if she’s already commanding this amount of sexual attention. But alas, we need a frame for this wafer-thin plot because Elizabeth is unmotivated (save for her insecurities driving her to have surgery and her undying attempts to bed the hottest member of her school’s faculty, Scott, played by Justin Timberlake), raunchy, uncaring (she tells an overweight child—twice—that he won’t have a girlfriend because of the way he looks), and altogether disgusting as a human being. Her antics ring “teenager,” but the truth remains that Elizabeth is a woman of nearly forty years old.
I guess somewhere between the gross-out gags and shock-value hijinks, we’re supposed to find humor in the fact that Elizabeth is a middle-aged fuck up. I’m not complaining that the film presents us with a character showing blatant disregard for morals and integrity; my problem is that we are presented with a woman who is clearly a victim of the same set of social principles that label the aforementioned Madonna as “too old” to tour, almost forcing Elizabeth in the opposite direction of “change” throughout the course of the film. We are given a stagnant look at a stagnant character growing old as a stick in the mud, wallowing in self-despair stemming from a society that leads her to believe breast implants at forty will mask her insecurities so she can parade around with sexually-charged faux confidence. Elizabeth’s reality, however, is that she’s spending New Years’ Eve alone on the couch eating a corn dog while her overweight, societally “unattractive” roommate leaves the house with a case of beer on the way to a party. We’re supposed to believe that she’s a screwed up woman when in fact she’s just a pathetic person hinging her happiness (and, therefore, the expectations of the audience) on whether or not she “pairs” with one of the men, none of which are endowed with any problems bigger than sexual awkwardness (Scott likes to dry hump and ejaculate into his own pants without getting Elizabeth off, but is wealthy and successful).
The other problem with Bad Teacher is that it provides us with countless outlets for Elizabeth to get better, but instead chooses to cop out. The film gives us an unlikeable protagonist and parallels her with an antagonist who “antagonizes” for the socially “acceptable” reasons (for the most part). Amy (Lucy Punch) is a teacher at Elizabeth’s school who, unlike Elizabeth, works hard to educate her students, maintains a squeaky-clean image, and seeks to purge the school of Elizabeth’s presence—as any sane person would. Amy is, instead, presented as being a conniving “bitch” (again, only stooping down to the film’s level here) who will stop at nothing to take Elizabeth down. Here lies the problem; the film is only “funny” because we laugh at the things Elizabeth does. Drinking alcohol while her students watch movies instead of read, smoking weed in the parking lot, embezzling school funds, and contributing to the detriment of children’s welfare in pursuit of breast implants is despicable; sneaking around said offender’s classroom while she’s absent to find the weed she has hidden in her desk, as Amy does, pales in comparison to Elizabeth’s offenses. Antagonist’s “evil” trumps that of the protagonist’s. Are you confused? Your sense of humor will be, too.
So, then, how does the film complicate matters? It pits Amy and Elizabeth against each other to see who can throw the cattiest low-blow in order to win Scott’s heart (as fate would have it, Amy is crushing on him, too). By film’s end, Elizabeth only manages to outwit Amy and get her arrested for drug possession (drugs that were actually Elizabeth’s) and transferred to another school after Amy exposes Elizabeth’s illegalities. Two women, neither likeable but one possessing redeeming qualities (the one we’re not supposed to side with), who end up no better off than when the film began. Elizabeth is unchanged, only abandoning her pursuit of Scott after she “conquers” him sexually in favor of canoodling with another teacher who exists within the screenplay solely to give Elizabeth an alternate opportunistic sexual exploit at her leisure.
The film essentially subverts expectations while indulging them at the same time; Elizabeth is unlikeable, but we want her to change while also achieving what we are led to believe will make her happy; Either that or a substantial reevaluation of her principals to acknowledge that her previous wrongdoings were, well, “wrong.” Instead the film rewards her ability to “hide.” No one is able to see the lonely person we’re led to believe she is, and by the film’s end she is still that lonely person. She’s not had to work for any sort of change that comes her way, she gains it all through sexual prowess, manipulation, or pure luck, and not because she is enlightened throughout the course of the film. She simply finds someone to fuck who suits her pleasure in the here, in the now. She has accomplished “dick” (literally) by film’s end after getting away with illegalities that she doesn’t care to amend. She succeeds in getting Amy transferred for attempting to expose Elizabeth’s wrongdoings. Is there something inherently wrong with that? Dick does not make the woman, my friends. But in the world of Bad Teacher, if she has it, it’s what we’re to assume makes her a “good,” “attractive,” “happy,” and ultimately “acceptable” person as a direct result, regardless if she is still an awful person or not. She is still a middle-aged woman with issues amplified by her age, none of which the film offers to “fix.”
While Elizabeth’s issues of middle-aged ennui are shoved into a cookie-cutter plot structure that offers no solutions to her unlikable qualities as a character, Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, released only 5 months after Bad Teacher, offers an alternate approach with an aging female character in a screenplay which subverts expectations for greater meaning.
Penned by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, Young Adult plays as a pseudo meditation on aging women in our society who were born on the cusp of the modern era but are still too old to “fit in” with the Kardashian-crazed, superficially contemporary pop culture icons. Mavis (Charlize Theron) is one of those women, only her problem is that she doesn’t “try” to fit in, she’s simply never outgrown the mentality which tells her she already does. She was popular in high school. Blonde hair, cheerleader, hooking up with the hottest guy on the football team—Mavis had the life every teenage girl wanted, and ends up as an alcoholic ghost writer of silly teen fiction novels in her later years. She lacks respect and she lacks a “real” life. She drinks, she smokes, and still wakes up in the wee morning hours in strangers’ beds, slipping out as easily as she did her tight, form-fitting dresses that bait them to her. Mavis is a fuck up like Elizabeth, but where Elizabeth actively recognizes her status as a lazy person (part of which makes her so worthy of our hate) Mavis is completely clueless, clinging to her faux-fame with a face that looks more like it belongs on “The Real Housewives” than on the homecoming court.
Mavis’ writing technique is nothing to be proud of, either. She’s inspired by (other than herself) conversations she hears on the street between girls much younger than her. She regurgitates the lingo she picks up (she hears one girl tell her friend she and her boyfriend have “textual chemistry,” which finds its way into Mavis’ novel) and pats herself on the back for being a creative genius. The process is halted, however, when she receives an email from her ex-boyfriend Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his child. Mavis, thinking she’s the epitome of cosmopolitan success, takes it upon herself to visit him in his Mercury, Minnessotta home and “save” him from a life of small-town sadness.
What ensues is an hour or so of Mavis’ desperate attempts to rip a happy man away from his happy life so she can fill a void she doesn’t quite recognize is self-induced. She grows jealous of the woman Slade marries, treats the people of her hometown like shit, and whilst incessantly vocalizing her displeasure with all the “pathetic” people of Mercury fails to realize it’s she who is unhappy.
Needless to say, Mavis’ attempt to win Slade back are unsuccessful, with the film culminating in a blowout where Mavis projects each of her insecurities unto the people of her hometown at the baby shower for Slade’s wife. She reveals that she and Slade were to have a baby many years ago, but that she lost it, and that the people of Mercury are “crazy” for staying there while she moved to the city to pursue a real career and ultimately a “real” life. The reveal tells us that Mavis thinks regaining the love of Slade will make her happy; the power of the film is, however, that the audience knows this is simply not true. We’re given enough information about Mavis to know that she, like Elizabeth, is a victim of the superficial culture around her, albeit in a different way. Mavis is chasing previously-established happiness she knows made her feel complete; it was not until she lost the capstone of her relationship—the baby—that she began her descent into alcoholism, loneliness, and destruction. Mavis dolls herself up and surrounds herself with the superficial world of trendy beauty, pop culture, and materialism because she cannot escape the days of her juvenile adolescence where those were the only things that mattered; when it was ok for only those things to matter. She simply fails to “mature” while her body aged, leaving a beautiful prom queen trapped in a body that doesn’t know how to process itself as undesirable. Elizabeth, on the other hand, knows she’s desirable; she’s simply selfish. Mavis is selfish with reason. She may still be an inherently “unlikable” person, but at least her lack of change by the end of the film is supported by the revelation that she lost Slade’s baby. We see her as a victim-turned-monster by film’s end, not simply a monster from start to finish.
Our expectations for Mavis to undergo some sort of epiphany are dashed somewhere near the middle of the film when we realize she is both the protagonist and the antagonist. She forces herself into situations we can see are a bad idea the moment she decides to place herself into them. She merely fails to see the error of her ways; it becomes our job as an audience to make meaning of the journey, to piece together the fragments of her life we’re forced to pick up along the way and forge them into some semblance of a portrait of her life and glean from it what we can. By film’s end, she’s altogether unchanged, but our perception of her character has run through a 6K marathon, spun-dry, and recycled itself into something we wouldn’t have been able to see at the film’s beginning. We see a young girl hurt by an oppressive society, pitying her as she still struggles to overcome adolescence well into her late 30s.
Does either film present a “solution” to anxieties that come with aging? I’m not entirely sure. If you go by the logic of Bad Teacher, one can suppress (or altogether ignore) the fact that aging is a reality and simply fuck the shit out of anyone who makes you happy. A “bad” film crafted around that notion simply rewards the protagonist for, well, being “bad” and getting away with it. She is not redeemed morally, only rewarded because she’s been relegated to the role of “protagonist.” The audience doesn’t “win” because we know she’s a corrupt woman. By the logic of Young Adult, happiness is a seed planted early on in life, one which can blossom to make the best of life’s various obstacles, or one that can wither into the later years of life and die long before the body does. The audience “wins” here because we’re able to see the faults and flaws the character can’t. We recognize her issues even though she doesn’t. Either way, the fact remains that age and our society are two things that have yet to meet eye-to-eye; until then, no matter how bad they are, let us continue striving to make sense of the anxieties revolving around every wrinkle forming around our face until we’re too old to remember how.
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