Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Thelma and Louise, and the need for female solidarity.

June 8, 2009

(This was originally published November 2, 2008 but I am changing the publish date to June 8, 2009 as part of a series of “reruns.”)

So, I’ve been thinking more about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how the ending is kind of like that of Thelma and Louise. And I think the key to the difference between the endings is the fact that Holly doesn’t have any female friends.

Now, the end of Thelma and Louise isn’t exactly “happy,” but as I said in my first post on the topic, “their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.”

The end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the other hand, is something of a settlepocalypse. Holly spent most of the movie afraid and alone, and just as she’s got her life going in a direction that she thinks will make her happy, it falls apart, leaving her even more afraid and more alone. While she’s vulnerable, Paul tells her she’s been struggling not because the patriarchy allows women very few routes to true independence, but because she’s a silly woman who won’t just settle. And so Holly just settles.

The difference is that while Thelma and Louise had each other to turn to when they were struggling to find independence, the only person Holly had was Paul, and he did not (and perhaps could not) understand what she was struggling with. So while Thelma and Louise could bolster each other, all Paul could do is reinforce Holly’s self-doubts.

I think it is impossible to break out of the patriarchal mindset as one woman, even in the destructive way that Thelma and Louise manage. Our society practically screams at women about how they should be (pretty, pleasant, and above all else, passive). Even in my own life, I have trouble sometimes fighting off its influence, and I am a self-assured feminist with a support system of countless other feminists. So for Holly to, on her own, reject its message even in small ways is an impressive feat. For her to completely reject the system, however, is nearly impossible.

I keep returning to this quote:

Paul Varjak: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

The thing is, he’s right, but only in the details. That cage does follow Holly everywhere she goes, but it’s not built by Holly herself, it’s built by the society she lives in. In a universe where Paul feels justified in saying, “I love you, that means you belong to me!” romantic relationships really can be cages. Holly refuses to sacrifice her independence, which means she spends all her time pushing at the limits of what society will allow, and never finding a comfortable balance.

Even if Paul had been different, and less creepily focused on how Holly belonged to him, I don’t think he could really have helped her escape these limits. Men, no matter what great allies they are, do not have to deal with the same barrage of expectations that can overwhelm even me. If it ever becomes overwhelming, a man can just stop thinking about, whereas a woman, like Holly, is completely trapped.

I think glimpses of this dynamic are visible in the sequence where Holly, after seeing off Doc Golightly, goes to get terribly drunk with Paul. She’s just sent away a man who loves her, and for whom she cares a great deal, in order to preserve her autonomy. The consequences are severe– she cannot benefit from his house or his money, her brother no longer has a place to stay, and she has hurt, perhaps permanently, a family that she cares for. Doc Golightly simply cannot understand why she even left in the first place, saying that she had no reason not to be happy with him. But she decides the sacrifice is necessary in order to maintain her autonomy, and so she stays in New York.

However, everything our wonderful society says about women suggests that this is a terrible, selfish, unacceptable thing to do. And she clearly feels awful. Yet Paul refuses to help her. At first he is sympathetic, and buys her some drinks, but when they return to her apartment and she starts trying to think how she can possibly support herself and her brother, he is of no help to her at all. She forms the plan of marrying a very rich man; it’s a compromise, as she would be selling her physical person, but maintaining her independence; Rusty Trawler, at least, will not expect her to love him deeply. I’ve often said that I have a lot of sympathy for so-called “gold-diggers” who use ambitious marriages to acquire independence in societies in which personal ambition wouldn’t be a plausible support. But all Paul does is disapproves. Actually, make that Disapproves with a capital D. He absolutely refuses to understand her situation. Which, of course, only makes Holly feel worse. On the plus side, she sends him packing with a fantastic line:

Holly Golightly: It should take you exactly four seconds to cross from here to that door. I’ll give you two.

But if Holly had had a Thelma, instead of Paul, how differently that scene would have gone! Well, it may still have started with getting terribly drunk at a strip club, but it wouldn’t have ended in such despair. Honestly, it would have made such a different movie I can hardly picture it. Maybe she would have calmed Holly down and found her place that feels like Tiffany’s. Or maybe they would have started robbing Holly’s “rats” (and especially the “super rats”) and become criminals on the lam. Probably nothing in between; you can’t half-transcend something.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter — this post isn’t really about movies. It’s about the importance of solidarity between women. (Please note: I’m using a really broad definition of womanhood. If you’ve ever gotten the short end of the sexism stick, I’m talking about you.) I’d say “and allies,” but fundamentally, even those allies who struggle with their own oppressions cannot personally relate to women’s struggles. The most important thing women can do for each other is share those experiences that are unique to womanhood. One woman getting catcalled is a personal annoyance, but a hundred women with the same experience represent a political problem. I always love those threads online that encourage women to share their experiences with catcalling, with menstruation, with rape, with job interviews, with anything. Because the common themes become readily apparent, and suddenly “personal annoyances” are revealed to be widespread political problems. It’s a paradigm shift that can only be provided by women who share with each other.

And it could have helped Holly Golightly find a real happy ending.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Jiao Long; and independence.

September 12, 2008

A commenter asked me to critique this movie, and boy am I glad I did. I saw it a long time ago, back when all movies held something new for me, and before it was hard for me to find movies where women kick ass.

There are three main women and two main men. Among the women, we have Jiao Long, teenaged ass-kicker; Yu Shi Lien, middle-aged ass-kicker; and Jade Fox, old ass-kicker. The men are Li Mu Bai, semi-retired ass-kicker in love with Yu, and Luo Xiao Hu, nomadic ass-kicker in love with Jiao. This movie kicked ass. (And now I’m done using those words. Sorry.)

The only downside was that I watched an English-dubbed version (as opposed to Mandarin with subtitles), and the words didn’t match the lip movements; this is only a problem because I am partially deaf, and I rely pretty heavily on lip-reading when dialogue is tricky. It’s not always a problem– usually it’s super-easy to guess based on the half-heard syllables I get– but when things get really interesting, I have to focus really hard to follow.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s my major complaint: sometimes, because I am partially deaf, I could not hear all the awesomeness.

This movie is primarily about Jiao, who is at a crossroads. She has three paths: live the high life as the governor’s daughter, but marry a boring nobleman; run off with Jade Fox, her former mentor, or with Luo, her nomad bandit lover, but never receive proper training in Wudan martial arts; or become Li’s student, but admit someone else superiority over herself.

Because really, much of this movie’s drama is driven by Jiao’s refusal to allow any one else to have power over her. When Luo robs her on the road, she chases after him and nearly fights his entire group in order to retrieve her comb. Because even though it was just a comb, he had taken it from her hand and smiled at her powerlessness, and she could not allow him to “win” like that. (Also, I think she was intrigued by him and his life — in her aggressive self-reliance, she is seeking freedom, and his life looks very free indeed.)

Now, as a feminist, I obviously think it’s laudable for a woman to fight for her right to self-determination. All people should be able to control their own lives (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness– I’m more American than I thought), and feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

However, I think Jian’s insistence on her autonomy causes a lot of the pain in this movie. Jade Fox accuses Jian of deliberately mistranslating the training manuals for her, simply so that Jian could be more skilled than her own mentor. This may or may not be true– I would also easily believe Jian’s explanation, that she hid her natural gifts so as not to hurt her mentor– but Jian’s continued resistance to Li’s mentoring surely caused everyone much heartache. She did need the training, the discipline, and Li lost his life chasing after her trying to give it to her. Jade Fox lost her life, too, in the chase, and Yu lost the love of her life, which is nearly worse, her grief was so great. And poor Luo, too, of course– he finally finds his way back to her, and she refuses him because she’s in such a muddle about her training.

Actually, looking back at it, the whole thing reminds me a lot of Thelma and Louise; she tries her hardest to refuse the world imposed upon her, but in the end her running comes to naught and she commits a transcendent suicide. It’s even a cliff both times. Is that really the only way these stories can end? Is it really Patriarchy Or Death?

I certainly hope not…but if I fling myself off a cliff someday, you’ll all know why: I’m trying to outrun the patriarchy.

(Check out my next post on this film here!)

What other people say about Thelma and Louise

July 29, 2008

I couldn’t help it, my interest was piqued. So here’s a quote/link round-up on Thelma and Louise.

“They achieve what the existentialist philosophers call transcendence. Having once experienced what it is to make their own choices, speak with their own voices, and take responsibility for their own actions, they are unwilling to relinquish that freedom. And they choose freely and with full awareness of the meaning of their choice not to relinquish it. It is an extraordinary resolution that ennobles Thelma and Louise–the characters and the film. And it is a stinging indictment of this society that the choice they make is the sane and reasonable one.”
Linda Lopez McAlister

Deception and Artifice: Thelma, Louise, and the Legal Hermeneutic by Shirley A. Wiegand

…aaand this has been a disappointing round-up, actually; I found so much more anti-feminist whining writing that I did thoughtful critique. Clearly, I have to learn to search better…or stick to it longer. But I’m off to bed.

Thelma and Louise; or, You Can’t Outrun the Patriarchy.

July 29, 2008

Whenever there’s a conversation about women in film, this movie always seems to turn up (well, it and Lara Croft but that’s another conversation for another day). I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and I have to say, it was simultaneously more and less depressing than I’d expected.

To me, this is a movie about the impossibility of living as a woman in a patriarchy. Which is, y’know, depressing. But even though it doesn’t end well for them, this is also a movie about two women giving a big fuck you to the patriarchy. Which is awesome!

I’m sure this is an observation that’s been made a bazillion times before, but now I’m going to observe it again. Starting with some key assumptions that really drive the patriarchy aspect home:

First, the fact that obviously they can’t tell the police. I mean, Thelma was clearly being raped, and Louise was clearly coming to her rescue, and even if it wasn’t self-defense (since he was leaving– though since he was also still shouting threats, they might have had a case) it probably could have been taken down to accidental manslaughter or temporary insanity — if people believed that he had been raping Thelma. Which, obviously, they wouldn’t. She was flirting with him. She’d been drinking. She probably wanted the attention. Even if she’d reported it, the police would have done nothing. Or said nice things and then never looked at her rape kit. It’s called victimblaming. (Jesus, those links took me all of fifteen minutes to find…and there are even more here.)

So, nobody’s going to take Thelma’s rape seriously. Obviously.

What makes this movie so awesome is that instead of shutting up and taking it, these two women run. They don’t apologize, they don’t try to explain– they just drive off.

And the deeper in trouble they get, the more they transgress, the more alive they feel. Just listen to them!

Thelma: I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: Something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back. I mean I just couldn’t live.
Louise: I know. I know what you mean.

Thelma: Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.

They have fun. They see some truly beautiful parts of the country. They drink and they smoke and they talk about whatever they want, including stuff that has nothing to do with men (this movie passes the Bechdel Test times a million). Thelma gets laid “properly,” Louise is proud, and no fire and brimstone rains down to punish her for enjoying sex. It looks like they’re outrunning the patriarchy. I mean, there’s no greater moment than when that have that idiot truck driver, and they are totally calling him out on his misogyny, and when he doesn’t get it– they blow up his truck! I nearly cheered!

Except, of course, that a woman can’t really break free, in a patriarchy. All their victories are destructive. They kill a man. They rob a store. They trap a policeman in his trunk. They blow up an asshole’s truck. And yeah, there’s a victory in doing things that patriarchy says you can’t do, and looking at each other and saying, “who knew we were so strong and brave and generally badass?” but in the end, they can’t change anything. The truck driver doesn’t learn his lesson. He just swears revenge– which he gets, because, hey, patriarchy! The police come and they’re on his side.

This is not a world that is kind to women. Thelma knows in an instant that her phone line is tapped because her husband answers sweetly.

State Trooper: [Sobbing] Please! I have a wife and kids.
Thelma: Oh really, well, you’re lucky. You be sweet to them, especially your wife. My husband wasn’t sweet to me. Look how I turned out.

Look how they turned out. In their desperation, they learned that they were strong, that they could do things. But look how they turned out.

They made a truly amazing run of it, but you can’t outrun the patriarchy. It does not provide any good choices. But their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.

Which made this movie simultaneously more and less depressing than I expected– but mostly less.