The selling (out) of feminist politics: The Hours
by Jennie Ruby Off Our Backs, Mar/Apr 2003
review “My name is Melissa Silverstein and I have been engaged by Paramount Pictures to conduct outreach to the women’s community for the upcoming film The Hours based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham.. I am writing today because I believe this film is important and that it should be seen by women across the country. I am hoping that your chapter of NOW will be able to help spread the word about the film to your constituents. I know this might seem unorthodox, but films with female leads and a female point of view are rare, and I want to make sure the women’s community knows about it before it finishes its run. We hope you’ll support this important film by linking to The Hours site: sending out an email; or mentioning it in an upcoming newsletter.” -from a letter from a publicist for Paramount Pictures, distributed on feminist listserves Apparently we have entered a new marketing era, in which women’s political organizations are being used as marketing tools to enhance profits for major motion picture studios. The Hours is being marketed specifically to women through “the women’s community”-a code word for feminists. But is this really a feminist film? It is certainly laudable that the film stars three women, when major studio films starring women are rare and the women are often tokenized. And certainly the fact that the movie is about everyday life and features not one single gun, crime, or car chase makes it a definite “chick flick.” And yes, the centrality of female characters would seem to indicate a woman’s point of view. But, in fact, this movie is centered on a man’s point of view and has disturbingly woman-hating and anti-feminist themes. One theme of this movie might be stated: what women’s insane, meaningless, depressed Lives do to the men who love them. The movie portrays creative and interesting women as randomly suffering from depression or mental illness or throwing their lives away for some unknown reason on “trivia” like caring for people and giving parties to make people feel good. The men involved with them are portrayed as long-suffering, indulgent, and bewildered. After all, what more could a woman want than that a man bring her roses before breakfast and reiterate over and over how good SHE is for HIM. (Hint: what have you done for me lately?) Further, the male writer portrays a woman’s lesbian relationship of 10 years as empty and hollow while the real meaning in her life is caring for an ungrateful gay man dying of AIDS who spits on her even as she plans a huge party honoring his life’s work. Her relationship to him is supposed to be foremost because he slept with her for 3 months 20 years ago and gave her a cute/meaningful nickname. Yeah. Right. I hardly think that would be the woman’s point of view of her own life. The fact that only one man and his mother cross into two of the three separate plots of the movie arguably makes them the central characters of the film. The 1950s plot with these two characters reveals a gay male politics that can run insidiously counter to feminism: The scenes set in the 1950s do a masterful job of portraying “the problem that has no name”-and emphatically refuse to name it! We are apparently supposed to think that the mother’s depression stems from the fact that she’s gay and stuck in a heterosexual marriage rather than from the widespread dissatisfaction so many white homemakers of that era felt with the isolated, sterile lifestyles of the suburbs. (Remember Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique?) Her abandonment of the family is then seen as an individual rejecting marriage because she is gay rather than as the socio-political indictment of SOs-style patriarchal marriage that would have been a more feminist interpretation. Why was it, again, that Paramount Pictures wanted NOW to help promote this film? And then there is the mother blaming. Or is it lesbian blaming? The boy’s mom is suicidally depressed and abandons her kids, perhaps because she is a lesbian, and that somehow makes her responsible for her son’s suicide 30 years later. The mother herself is portrayed as apologetically recognizing that she will be considered responsible for his suicide because she left. Confirming the true point of view of the movie, entire scenes center on the boy, whose large blue eyes so expressively take in everything his mother does, so that the viewer clearly gets the message that what she is doing is having a tremendous effect on HIM, and that is what is important. But what about the boy’s father? Where is his culpability in his son’s unhappiness? After all, he (a) failed to recognize his wife’s agony, (b) failed to raise the boy the rest of the way in such a way as to heal emotionally from the emptiness of the marriage he had helped create with a woman he never really knew, and (c) is conveniently killed off by the writer, along with the sister we never meet, so the fathering issues don’t have to be addressed. An essential part of patriarchy is blaming mothers for all parenting failures and holding fathers blameless. This movie stands solidly with patriarchy on this one. The Deeply Meaningful scene between the mother who abandoned the son and the woman who has spent her life loving the son in vain highlights the underlying belief system that women are supposed to be there for men, but men don’t owe anything to the women, such as loving them, appreciating them or staying alive for them. Hatred of women informs the story throughout: One woman is damned for leaving the suburban housewife role; another is excoriated for being involved in women’s concerns like providing food and comfort to the ill, decorating a home with cheerful flowers, and creating celebratory social events; and Virginia Woolf is portrayed as crazily insisting on damaging her own mental health (by writing Mrs. Dalloway, one of her greatest creations!) against the better advice of her loving husband and then upsetting him by killing herself. A more feminist reading of the events the movie portrays would be that the women are driven into depression because the men that patriarchal culture pressured them into marrying don’t really know them, don’t have the ability to communicate about deep emotions, and don’t even notice how the women are really feeling. The men benefit from women’s nurturing even as they belittle the women for doing it and blame the women viciously if they don’t do it. The women’s depressions and mental illnesses are more likely caused by men’s doings than by the fact that they just are gay or are mentally ill. Other feminist questions might be, if this is supposed,,to be such a woman-centered film, why do we not see more of the mother’s shadowy, implied wonderful lesbian life in Canada, for which she says she would abandon her family again? Is the son perhaps taking revenge on women for the mother who abandoned him by choosing to be unavailable to the putative love of his life first by choosing to be gay and second by killing himself? Is this movie trying to suggest that the boy inherited both gayness and depression from his mother? Is Michael. Cunningham, the author of the book on which the movie is based, perhaps trying to take revenge on all women by writing this novel? As a lesbian feminist I also must ask, haven’t lesbians been colonized enough by all the porn websites portraying “lesbian action” and the sexual libertarian “let’s all take a walk on the wild side” mentality that is so prevalent today? Why don’t we leave the few feminist lesbian literary icons to lesbian feminists to novelize, analyze and understand, and before the next movie is made by straight men or gay men or straight women about lesbians, let the producers pause and consider whether they would be running with Michael Crichton’s novelization of Toni Morrison’s life, or casting Julia Roberts to play Alice Walker. Sure, go see this movie. It’s certainly better than Jackass: The Movie. But don’t be fooled into expecting a true women’s movie, because despite the beautiful cinematography, the wonderful performances by women actors, And the richly literary and evocative plotlines, you may be surprised by the bitter aftertaste of misogyny.