Theory

Sexual Colonialism; Feminine Assimilation in “I Spit On Your Grave”

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Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978)presents a narrative in which a single female is raped by a gang of males. Released in the same decade which produced a female character, Ripley, revolutionarily prevailing as the strongest person aboard a spacecraft during a monstrous attack in Alien, I Spit On Your Grave similarly gives a female character enough agency to seek deadly vengeance for an attack against her. However, although Jennifer ultimately kills the men who rape her, I Spit On Your Grave presents her feminine sexuality as an easily manipulated entity, allowing the male sexual mentality to reinvent traditional sexual practices on its own terms. As a result of that that process coupled with the fact that the film remains, as Carol Clover states, “aftermathless,” Jennifer ultimately objectifies herself and assimilates into the male mentality through her acts of vengeance, reconstituting her feminine societal position as a result of male-driven sexual domination.

The film stages the clash of male and female sexuality in its presentation of a diegetic space where its characters are presented as polar opposite, unable to coexist in the same setting due to their societal origins. The dichotomy is fleshed out via a key binary opposition pitting country and urban life against each other. Jennifer comes from the city whereas the rapists inhabit a rural locale. The film establishes the opposition during the beginning sequence of the film which sees Jennifer leaving her life in the city for the summer, hoping to clear her mind during a trip to a rural town. Jennifer’s city life is starkly contrasted with that of the rural town primarily through the usage of sound and imagery. The city is characterized by car horns, tall buildings, and other aural and visual signifiers of human life. On the other hand, the town is a quiet place devoid of the hustle and bustle of the city, whose sounds are noticeably absent as Jennifer transitions from one setting to the other. Natural sounds such as birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees serve to isolate the noise Jennifer’s car makes, contrasting its mechanical drone with the foreboding silence of the country.

Jennifer is introduced as a well-off urban resident with a job as a writer. Upon meeting Johnny for the first time at a gas station in town, Jennifer explains that she hopes the quiet, serene atmosphere of the country will facilitate a train of thought for which to write a new story She idealizes and objectifies the country life, assuming that it is a much simpler place than the city she inhabits, therefore hoping to channel that simplicity into clearing her mind of stress and city-induced pressures. Because Jennifer compartmentalizes settings such as the “city” and “country” as signifiers of entirely different ways of life (placing them on two separate planes of complication; the city is sophisticated, the country is simple), she essentially “others” or exoticizes the rural town, hoping to pillage (or rape, in a sense) its resources (the “simple” train of thought it will provide her) for her own financial gain (in the form of her story, which she will assumedly profit from).

The film emphasizes Jennifer’s exoticizing of the rural setting through the aforementioned scene where she meets Johnny at the gas station. Jennifer exits her car and asks Johnny to fill her tank up. She makes conversation with him, telling him that she’s enjoying the act of stretching her legs (which we later learn Johnny assumes is an act of Jennifer “asking for” his sexual attention). The long shot is broken by a shot-reverse shot “conversation” of sorts between Jennifer and two other men (Stanley and Andy) who take turns throwing a knife into the ground for their own entertainment. The editing in this scene allows us to see Jennifer’s reaction to the men’s activity, viewing it with an almost condescending smile. Jennifer observes this act as an outsider observing a foreign practice seeing as throwing a knife into the ground is a useless act when placed in the context of city life. The scene also intersperses shots of Johnny observing Jennifer observing the knife throwing, looking her up and down in a sexualized manner. Jennifer “others” the rural town’s residents by exoticizing their location and behavior, while they “other” Jennifer by objectifying her as a sexualized object. The setting itself also functions to “other” Jennifer in a scene which sees her enjoying the liberation a secluded place like her summer cabin offers her. Jennifer removes her clothing and enters the river beside the cabin, the camera zooming out further and further until it seems to hide behind the foliage on the banks opposite Jennifer. In a sense, the audience’s perspective as voyeur (which undermines Jennifer’s assumptions about seclusion providing her with peace, foreshadowing the “intrusion” of the four men who rape her) is emphasized while at the same time the setting itself “others” Jennifer’s presence by dwarfing her scope in relation to the woods as the shot zooms out.

In terms of male sexuality, that which pervades the male group in the film is presented as highly colonialist in terms of its function. As Johnny, Matthew, Stanley, and Andy discuss sexuality while they fish (prior to the rape of Jennifer) they speak of it as a tool to conquer or spread their dominant ideals. Johnny insists that the group tries to “find [Matthew] a broad,” in essence legitimizing Matthew as a man by conquering a female and making her his possession. Andy then muses on “chicks” from Los Angeles, saying that the city is “swarming with chicks looking to get laid.” Stanley echoes the sentiment, saying that “chicks come from all over the country,” and their only desire is to “get laid.” The men view feminine sexuality as something which needs conquering, and they are entitled to provide that sexual “completion” for these females because they are endowed with a penis, the tool which will “lay” the women who apparently so desperately desire it. This sets the stage for Jennifer’s rape, which functions as an act of not only sexual gratification for the men, but also as a means for them to fulfill their role as sexual colonist in the world as they see it (a world which, unlike the city where Jennifer comes from, is one where women have no individual power for which to hinder the seed of the males from spreading).

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The film emphasizes male sexual dominance intruding upon Jennifer’s feminine space in two key scenes. First, Jennifer finds a handgun in a chest of drawers when she first moves into the cabin. The camera switches between a shot of the gun and Jennifer’s face, emphasizing her weary reaction to its presence. Guns generally represent male aggression and power, and in this case Jennifer is uneasy about the gun’s intrusion upon her feminine space she hopes will facilitate her writing, but decides to leave it in the drawer (foreshadowing her transformation from feminized victim to masculine aggressor). Another notable scene which emphasizes the male intrusion upon Jennifer’s feminine space occurs shortly before the rape. Jennifer is writing her story as she sits on a hammock overlooking the river. An interior monologue is audible in which Jennifer recites what she is writing. She writes in a romantic style as birds chirp lightheartedly overhead, using flowery phrases such as “the fabric of her life,” describing “the big city, her job, her friends,” and the things which “other” her from the country setting and the male rapists. Her monologue (and romantic state of mind) becomes muffled as the sounds of a motorboat carrying Andy and Stanley approaches, drowning out her thoughts and rendering her momentarily unable to write as male presence disrupts her.

Jennifer’s rape indicates the full penetration of both Jennifer’s feminine, urban world and her sexual barriers at the hands of a dominant male group from the country. The male group presents her as the conquered object to Matthew, with Johnny telling him to “come on, we got her for you,” as they hold Jennifer down. Johnny’s words indicate the assumed (on the part of the males) roles for males and females in the world. Johnny views Jennifer as an object which must be captured, conquered, and codified as someone’s possession. As one in the group sexually assaults her, Jennifer is held down by the others. This indicates that while Jennifer is a victim, she is not placed on an equal plane. The act of male-on-female rape occurs at the hands of a group who rely on each other for moral support (they shout words of encouragement to whoever is currently raping Jennifer) as well as physical support (they hold Jennifer down). Matthew’s desire to rape Jennifer is also depicted as reliant upon the approval of his peers in order to produce any sort of actual pleasure for him. He only rapes her because the other males encourage him to and make fun of him when he says he doesn’t want to. Matthew finally succumbs to their desires, pleasuring the other males in the group with his compliance versus raping Jennifer for his own sexual satisfaction. This defines male sexuality as a colonialist exploit, pillaging Jennifer’s body as if it were a piece of land (or a piece of meat) for their own conquest. The power the male group has over Jennifer becomes apparent through various reconstitutions of “traditional” sexual ideals their exploit produces. The men rape Jennifer, they do not “have sex” with her. The act is forced, not consensual. Andy sodomizes Jennifer instead of entering her vagina. The act takes place outdoors instead of in a bedroom between multiple partners instead of involving one male and one female. The male sexual mentality is presented here as having enough power over feminine sexuality to reinvent the practice of sexuality itself.  Each of the aforementioned factors (primarily the act of sodomy engaged in instead of vaginal penetration) functions to indicate the male group’s interdependence of its individual members, fitting into how Robin Wood describes sexuality as “a mere by-product that one can choose or not… [there is] no logical reason remains why sexuality should be restricted to heterosexuality”.

The proceeding transition from Jennifer’s passive state to her aggressive state begins with key visual parallels which signify the shift. After she is raped, Jennifer is shown cleansing her body in the shower. She washes away the red blood which covers her body, indicating that she is shedding her “city” self (she was introduced to the audience wearing a bright red dress). A graphic match connects a scene where Jennifer drives to a church to seek forgiveness for her act of vengeance to the scene where she leaves the city to come to the country. Jennifer is positioned on screen left, aligned in profile view to the camera. Where the skyline of New York City was in the initial scene towards the beginning of the film is now replaced with a graveyard. As Jennifer enters the church, she is wearing dark pants (another contrast to her feminized city attire), indicating her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor.

Although Jennifer succeeds in killing each of the men who assaulted her, she is not presented as a dominant female. In her act of revenge, rather, she is further implicated as a weak character. Because Jennifer kills the men because they raped her, the film presents feminine power only coming after a male has sexually violated her body. Before the rape, she is barely strong enough to stand up straight in her rowboat as she is dragged out of it let alone put up a decent fight. The men’s reconstitution of traditional sexual practices goes against what Jennifer would seemingly consider “normal” circumstances under which to have sex (judging from her romantic writings, etc.). The act of rape “awakens” Jennifer’s masculinized side, causing her to then accept the male presence in her life, retrieve the gun she felt weary of before, and attempt to use it to subdue the rapists.

Jennifer is also only able to kill the men after she sexually seduces them. She offers Matthew a “summer [he] won’t forget,” to which he responds with sexual arousal as Jennifer welcomes him on top of her. He is far too invested in completing the sexual act to notice Jennifer slip the noose which will kill him around his neck. Similarly, Jennifer lures Johnny back to her home (after feigning romantic feelings for him just before shooting him in the woods) and castrates him with one hand while pleasuring him with the other. In both cases, Jennifer must first play into the role of the feminized sexual object before she can act as the masculinized aggressor exacting revenge. In essence, Jennifer does nothing to advance the female position in the film. She yields to male sexual desire in order to get what she wants, becoming the sexual object, overpowering male sexuality by playing into their expectations of women who only desire to get “laid” which, while still technically yielding the result Jennifer wants (their deaths), relegates her to an inferior role once again.

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Jennifer succeeds in killing all four men, but the fact that the film remains “aftermathless” only further implicates her as a weak character . Carol Clover’s emphasis on the film’s lack of an aftermath forces her readers to consider the film’s absence of a concrete solution to the film’s occurrences. Jennifer, a member of “city” society who relies heavily on her roots as an urban resident, is not given any sort of legal outlet for which to prevail. She simply kills the men in secrecy. It is unknown whether or not Jennifer truly “gets away” with killing the men, so the true “aftermath” of the film remains unknown. What is clear, however, is the fact that the last impression the audience has of Jennifer is that of a murderer. She has only triumphed in getting “even” with the men as she sees fit, not as the strict laws which govern her urban society would dictate. The film ends with Jennifer as a byproduct of dominant male aggression. She is a changed woman who bares not only the physical scars of her rape but also the mental ones which resulted from both it and the murders she committed, allowing (even in their deaths) the dominant male mentality which victimized her to reconstitute her life yet again.

I Spit On Your Grave focuses its audience’s attention on the dichotomies between urban and rural life and the male and female sexual mentality. Despite her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor, I Spit On Your Grave ultimately concludes with its protagonist as a weak person whom has completely (consciously or subconsciously) submits to male power. Through its depiction of the binaries between urban and rural, victim and aggressor, and male and female, the film uses Jennifer as a tool for which to show the undying power of male sexual domination through to its conclusion, which sees her as a byproduct of their sexual crimes despite her position as a financially empowered woman of the city at the beginning of the film. While she uses her status as a victim to fuel her revenge plot, it is still the male’s actions which fuel hers, forcing her to submit once again to their ideals of women as sexual objects without any sort of justice-based narrative conclusion to affirm that what she’s done is “right.”

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Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.

The Art/Artifice of Aging: Getting Older in “Bad Teacher” and “Young Adult”


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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