Saturday, July 17, 2010
Feminist Film Review: The Other Boleyn Girl (Misogynist Movie in Feminist Film Clothes)
So what is the purpose of this new-fangled FFR? Why, to keep Hollywood in check of course! And we're starting the FFR off with a huge MMA (Misogynist Movie Alert) on The Other Boleyn Girl. This film is a historical fiction that tells the story of two sisters who become mistresses of King Henry VIII. Since the film is openly fictional, its historical accuracy bears little importance to the FFR. I'm a lot more concerned by its social (in)accuracy and (ir)responsibility.
How to assess Boleyn Girl? It's hard to recall the last time a film disappointed me this much. After all, few films parade as feministic, only to back up the myth that women are all either angels or whores and that rape victims have it coming to them. I suppose I should have known what to anticipate when the description on the box said it was about two sisters who competed with each other and "vied" for the king's attention. Or when it started off with the women as little girls, their father discussing how one of them was kind, the other ambitious. Or when the sweet, kind one was blonde and the ambitious one brunette.
And yet I was still surprised when the brunette sister became the evil temptress, tricking the po' wittle king into betraying his country, his marriage, and his God, until he finally loses his mind and does the only thing he can: he rapes the undeserving temptress, demanding "Show me you were worth it!" What plotlines brought the po' wittle king to this act of necessary violence? And why was I surprised by the film's misogyny? Well, read on:
The whole twisted love triangle gets started when the girls' father decides to toss the unmarried Brunette, Anne (Natalie Portman), into the King's lap, in the hopes that the entire family will profit from being related to the king's mistress. When Anne's efforts fail to capture the King's attention, he falls instead for the guileless but married blonde, Mary (Scarlett Johansson). He summons her to court and, as her family explains, a summons is not a request. Mary begs not to be sent, but even her husband is powerless to resist the king's summons, and so they set off.
But does the film address how this summons is itself a form of rape? No, Mary goes to the King quietly (but with frightened looks when his back is turned), and she quickly falls in love with him. When the King later rapes Anne and Anne asks Mary how he treated her when he slept with her, Mary remarks that he was remarkably and surprisingly tender. I suppose the moral of the story is that a good woman is not raped but a manipulative woman is. Never mind the fact that rape is a way of seizing power more than an uncontrollable desire to sleep with someone and that the king used sex as a form of power over both sisters.
But to backtrack for a moment - before Anne actually catches the King's attention, we have a few moments where the film paints itself out as a friend of feminism. The girls' mother criticizes their father for whoring her daughters out for the pleasure of men, and the film at least attempts to make Anne sympathetic so that we can understand how she turned so gosh darn temptress-evil. Anne marries a man who is betrothed to another, and when her father and uncle banish her and keep the marriage secret so as not to ruin their political alliances, Anne goes to France. Before Anne leaves, her mother tells her that in France she will learn that the best way to control men is by allowing them to believe they are in charge. Ah ha - here the film is letting us know that it's concerned with women issues and with female power. Yay! What a relief to know that the director has heard of feminism!
Too bad he doesn't know what the word means.
So Anne comes back as a manipulative mincer of words, while Mary is still the soft-mannered and well-intentioned sister. In fact, Mary is even the mother of the King's son! She's giving him all she wants! She's so virtuous! Yay Mary - way to be an obedient woman who "wouldn't presume to interfere in affairs of state."
As the film progresses, the sisters' characters become even more contrasted. Mary does nothing wrong. She always looks refined and poised and puts her sister first, even at the risk of her own life. Anne, meanwhile, seduces the king simply to spite her sister, a motive the film bends over backwards to make clear to us by having Anne grin menacingly each time the king notices her. The King, meanwhile, maintains a moody and romantic aura throughout the whole film. He looks torn and guilty as he wrongly divorces his first queen, which he of course only does because Anne refuses to sleep with him until he does (apparently he was above rape before the divorce, but below it after the divorce). Bad Anne. Bad, bad, bad Anne.
The King's guilt just builds and builds as he watches the innocent queen strut away (the film practically paints a halo around her, just in case we haven't figured out she's one of the angel women). Finally, overcome by his guilt, he confronts Anne, who continues acting bad by refusing to sleep with him until they're married, and by maintaining that the virtuous ex-queen was the one who was truly at fault. Then, the film makes sure we witness Anne's degradation. We hear ripping, we see the king standing close behind her, we see the pained expression on her face, and we see the suddenly relieved look on his face as he finishes raping her, apparently releasing all the sexual tension that pushed him over the edge. But the film doesn't dwell on this crime and act of violence by exploring Anne's emotions immediately following it. Instead that look of pain on her face is soon contrasted at her coronation, where she smiles triumphantly. Yes, rape was simply the cost of her evil ambition and her temptress ways.
But don't worry - Anne gets worse. When she can't give the king a son, she falls off her mental rocker and eventually gets herself and her brother killed by talking him into sleeping with her so that she can give the King an heir. They don't actually sleep together, mind you, since her brother is gay, but the brother's jilted wife, angry that he won't sleep with her, turns them into the King when she sees them in bed together. Bad jilted wife! Bad!
The virtuous Mary swoops back into town and tries to save Anne (it's too late for the brother). She shares a tender moment with the King, who appears to regret ever turning against the nice sister in order to please the evil sister. Then we get to feel sad for Anne as she is executed in spite of the King's promise to Mary that Anne will live. Good, we sympathize with her as we see how far her treachery and general stupidity have sunk her. But the film almost sympathizes more with the King, who remains inside during her execution, a dark and tormented expression on his face.
In fact, the film sympathizes so heavily with the king that when the film is winding down and the viewers are learning the fates of each character, recorded in subtitles, the film waits until we have some happy images in the background (Mary playing with her children and her sister's child) before it tells us about the King's concerns. How he changed the face of England forever when he broke away from the Catholic church and how he produced a strong female heir in Anne's daughter, Elizabeth. The film then ends with an image of Elizabeth playing as a child.
I suppose Queen Elizabeth is supposed to be the woman who triumphs over all of her ancestors? The one who overcomes the gender problems that led to the downfall of her parents, proving that the film really does believe in strong women?
Too bad the film was too busy reinforcing sexist stereotypes to take the time to delve into the psychology driving each character. The director likely thought he was producing a feminist-friendly film when he painted the girls' conniving uncle to be evil and without any conscience, or when the most sympathetic male in the entire film was the gay brother. But even in the portrayal of the brother the film appeals to stereotype, making him effeminate and even spineless.
And in addition to all this, need I point out that the film entirely ignores any class issues that don't affect upper class families?
The Feminist Film review is a new column inspired by Emily and Erica's inability to simply watch a movie for entertainment, without analyzing all the gender relations within it. This inability may not be such a problem, mind you, seeing as how it's shared by other feminists of note such as bell hooks.