Tag Archives: society

Straight Trippin’: Strong Female Leads and the Clumsiness Crutch

25 Jul

I started watching The Newsroom this week. After having at least three friends show me (separately) Will McAvoy’s opening meltdown about American world rankings, I felt compelled as a liberal to watch our new messiah on his weekly soapbox.

And I love the show. Perhaps it’s because, as Emily Nussbaum hints in her New Yorker review, I “share its politics.” Or maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for fast-paced political dialogue and a good love triangle (who else is rooting for Maggie and Jim Harper?).

But as I watched the series, I noticed something unusually familiar: the shocking amount of clumsy trip ups scripted for the main cast. Will misses his chair, Mac falls over desks, and Maggie can hardly pick up phones. In the most recent episode, Jim gets hit by a door so often he bleeds.

Perhaps I’m merely underestimating the power of physical humor (sorry, Chris Farley), but these out of place gaffs don’t endear me to The Newsroom characters. Instead, I question their professional competency.

The more I considered the cast’s inability to walk (much less in a straight line), the more I realized that relying on clumsiness to humanize a strong female lead is a fairly common technique used in many major shows. Liz Lemon from 30 Rock‘s massive trip ups are a source of constant laughter. Although in season 1 the clumsiness could have been considered a mere quirky trait, by now Liz is known almost completely for her inability to move around the office and her dating neuroses.

Sarah Jessica Parker takes clumsiness to professional heights during I Don’t Know How She Does It. Her character, Kate Reddy, is so wholly not ready to complete any task (including dressing herself) that I don’t know how she does anything— including basic necessities like taking showers or eating. In this movie, the writers rely on clumsiness to  prove that Kate is fallible and overworked; however, as a viewer it simply makes me think she’s incompetent.

Klutzy female leads are so common in our culture that they’ve become a trope and have even secured their own Wikipedia page. Clumsiness serves to make women cute and endearing, and often leads to fortuitous romantic entanglements. Women can bump into men in movies and we will call it fate. The offending men find this bumbling charming, and one tumble leads to natural rom-com romance and the inevitable date.

Shana Mlawski published this flowchart of female tropes in Overthinking It. One of the tropes is called “Adorable Klutz.”

Even if klutzy ladies are a worn stereotype in our culture, who cares? I’m a self-described klutz; my legs are bruised from constant tripping over bed corners and once I even tore down my curtains while falling out of bed (both my feet were asleep. It’s not that uncommon!)

So as a clumsy woman, how can I find a TV trope that represents me distasteful? The problem is that clumsiness is used as a crutch for writers; otherwise strong, powerful women are infantalized by one “flaw” that serves to endear them to the male audience. Mindy Kaling talks about this trope in her New Yorker “Flick Chicks” article, bashing screenwriters for including a fake flaw for otherwise perfect women.

When a beautiful actress is cast in a movie, executives rack their brains to find some kind of flaw in the character she plays that will still allow her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would pay to see that? A female who is not one hundred per cent perfect-looking in every way? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours. So they make her a Klutz.

The hundred-per-cent-perfect-looking female is perfect in every way except that she constantly bonks her head on things. She trips and falls and spills soup on her affable date (Josh Lucas. Is that his name? I know it’s two first names. Josh George? Brad Mike? Fred Tom? Yes, it’s Fred Tom).

The Klutz clangs into stop signs while riding her bike and knocks over giant displays of fine china in department stores. Despite being five feet nine and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society. But Fred Tom loves her anyway.

In addition to making Fred Tom’s love for the lead more palatable, the Klutz-Trope invokes The Protector instinct in men, making strong women in need of (masculine) care. Otherwise powerful women are therefore viewed as endearing children who need protection. Even if a woman is more powerful than a man, she still needs him in some small way, even if it’s just to pick up her books in the hallway. Cause women can’t bend down and stuff.

Although the klutz trait is less common in men, I will say that in recent years some shows strive to balance the physical gaffes. The Newsroom is one such show. Although Mac and Maggie are more clumsy than any of the other characters, Will can be seen tripping over chairs and other newsroom furniture. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant inverses the trope by spilling orange juice on the cool and collected Julia Roberts.

I salute these clumsy men, who collectively prove that the female sex is not fated to fall and trip their way into the arms of men.

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Feminist Solidarity in the Help: an Application of bell hooks to the Controversial Film

18 Mar

When I first watched the movie The Help, I was overwhelmed by the racist narrative of the story. In it a group of social, racist, wealthy white women are set up as the evil “mean girls” and two outcast white women, Celia and Skeeter, team up with their black maids to fight for equality. Skeeter interviews the maids and publishes their narratives anonymously, challenging the racist structure of the southern town.

I felt this was racist because the lead role was reserved for a white woman; a white woman was compiling and then narrating the voices of black women, colonizing their stories and reproducing them through a white filter; the racist women were villains in the traditional sense as they had no redeeming qualities, presenting a one-dimensional view of racism that might lead modern viewers to disregard or overlook more subconscious racism; in the end, the black women were presented as having more power than I felt was historically accurate, and also as having a close relationship based on egalitarian values with the white women. I saw this as an idealistic ending meant to alleviate the guilt and responsibility white people might feel about their role in racism.

All this, I felt, made The Help undeniably racist.

However, I am on a plane, and I am reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (lent to me by my wonderful major professor.)

In this book, hooks has a chapter titled, “Holding My Sister’s Hand: Feminist Solidarity.” The chapter focuses on hooks’ experience living through racial segregation in the south and the history of antipathy she witnessed between white and black women. hooks explores the historical roots of relationships between black and white women and connects this to the lack of black, self-identified, female feminists. She then offers suggestions to help heal the rift, restoring sisterhood.

For those who are about to comment and correct my capitalization, bell hooks uses all lowercase letters in her name.

hooks writes that this anger and mutual distrust is, at first, a result of white women’s secondary role in the patriarchal system; white women saw black women as sexual competitors and as a threat to their already limited social status. She explains that white women felt little sympathy for the humiliation and degradation that black women (especially slaves) experienced at the hands of white men, and were instrumental in rejecting moves for equality through marriage or inheritance that white men might try to enact with black women.

hooks argues that this narrative resulted in the mistrust and bitterness that black women felt for white women, noting that the shared experience of womanhood did not led to sisterhood. Moreover, the rise of feminism failed to heal this rift; hooks narrates that at the advent of the feminist movement white women were disinclined to listen to or discuss racism or their role in perpetuating it. Their refusal to acknowledge this conflict, according to hooks, led to the alienation black women felt within the feminist movement.

Until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women (and vice versa), until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups (hooks 102)

I wonder what hooks would think of The Help. Perhaps it is possible to see the movie as recognizing the conflict between black and white women, but also as a hope that sisterhood and solidarity can overcome even the most entrenched animosities.

After all, the movie depicts two black female characters willing to overcome their bitterness towards white women in order to work together with Skeeter, an early feminist, in order to challenge a social hegemony that enacted white patriarchal values enforced by the elite white women of the community. This is precisely what hooks challenges black women to do.

hooks calls on white women to “assume responsibility for examining their own responses to race” and to “recognize the truth of racial oppression” before they can move forward in feminist, anti-racism projects (106). I’m not quite sure Skeeter does this. Maybe someone who is more familiar with the movie can help me out?

However, another interesting intersection of hooks and The Help is the character of Celia Foote. Celia is a poor white woman who marries wealthy. hooks notes that she felt as though less wealthy white women were more able to talk about an accept racial inequality:

In conversations I felt that feminist white women from non-materially privileged backgrounds often felt their understanding of class difference made it easier for them to hear women of color talk about the impact of race, of domination, without feeling threatened (hooks 108)

Celia seems to live in a world where race lines aren’t drawn, and treats Minny (her black maid) like an equal. Although this isn’t quite the same thing as being able to talk about inequality, it is still interesting that Celia seems to be one of the only white women able to have a friendship with a black woman in the movie.

It makes me wonder: Did the author of The Help read bell hooks? And if so, was she trying to create a new narrative where white women recognized their racism and used their limited power to help their black sisters overcome oppression?

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