And so the summer of 2008 ends, petering out in an anti-crescendo of also-rans, farces, and great indie hopes. Oh, and the movies aren’t so hot, either. What did you think I was talking about? Given all the hoo-ha over Tropic Thunder’s right—or lack thereof—to throw around the word “retard,” the complaints about releasing the parody Disaster Movie on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (and as Hurricane Gustav threatens to be the most undesired of sequels), and the stupendous political theater that is the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, it’s a little hard not to get all movie metaphorical. It’s especially hard to resist when the confluence of release dates and vice presidential announcements presents a particularly stellar opportunity in that regard. For what is Sarah Palin if not John McCain’s version of The House Bunny?
Consider this question in the light of, for instance, Sex and the City: The Movie. Remember how folks got all in a lather over it? You know, all those potshots at Sarah Jessica Parker et al. for daring to imagine themselves attractive even though they were over forty. All that harrumphing about women bonding over shoes and whining over man troubles. All that grumbling about how lawyer-mom Miranda was a bitch and potential Mrs. Big Carrie a narcissist. All that shock and amazement when women actually showed up at the movie theater in droves to see it. It’s exhausting just thinking about all of that nonsense again. It does bear repeating in this context, though, because Hillary Clinton’s name came up more than once in all the flurry, whether as another example of the sexism in the media that resulted in the unchallenged misogynist critical disgust at SATC, as well as critiques of Clinton’s fashion sense, or as another one of those phenoms that reminded people that women aren’t just arm candy. It almost goes without saying as well that “bitch,” “narcissist,” and “whiner” are probably among the many choice epithets that have been applied in public and private to describe Senator Clinton. Whether they will eventually make their way to Governor Palin remains to be seen.
I suspect that they won’t, though. Sarah may be the Barracuda, but she’s not really that much of a challenge to the status quo. Whereas Clinton and the SATC ladies committed the cardinal sins of upending such hoary notions as older women don’t count as a viable demographic/cultural presence, and women shouldn’t try to reach the very top by dint of their own efforts (even with the assist of a very prominent Mr. Big), Palin and The House Bunny are a refreshing breeze of stale pseudo-feminist air. Now, I enjoyed The House Bunny a lot more than I thought I would, if only because Anna Faris and Emma Stone have flawless comic instincts. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that The House Bunny’s story of female self-determination and friendship registered nary a blip on the pundit radar. It edged out the guy-ier Death Race at the box office on its opening weekend and kinda challenged Tropic Thunder for supremacy? That’s nice. Its audience is more female than male? Uh huh. Of course it is. So what gives? Why is The House Bunny allowed to exist in peace?
Hm. Let’s see. Well, it’s set in a college sorority house, so the female bonding is to be expected. That’s what those silly college girls do. They throw big parties so they can attract boys. Our heroine Shelley lives in the Playboy Mansion and dreams of being a Bunny. Her life is all about being the ultimate arm candy. That’s what wins over the dubious Zeta gals. Accordingly, Shelley coaches her initially dowdy sorority charges on the importance of showing skin in the proper places, the beauty of the water bra, and how the eyes are the nipples of the face. She takes them shopping so they can draw lots of admiring male stares when they strut across campus. As part of her makeover, Emma Stone’s bookish sorority leader Natalie temporarily doffs her glasses, of course (thus reinforcing the very tired idea of men, passes, glasses, etc.). Sure, she puts them back on by the time she gets her desired guy in the end, but it took removing them to get his attention. Great. Oh, I know, Shelly realizes she prefers to be a den mother to sorority girls than a Bunny, and her girls realize it’s better to be kind than catty. I also know that two women wrote the script, and that Anna Faris was inspired by the question of what happens to beauty objects in an ageist pop culture. Fine.
The paradox, though, is that The House Bunny gets off without a question because it fits so nicely into comfortable categories of how women should be. Who cares about any ageist message when the lovely lead actress is only 32, and her co-stars are years away from the dreaded 27? Who cares if they shop and primp? They do it to look pretty for boys, and they’re just a bunch of girls. And that female audience watching it: well, they’re young too, and if they start wearing water bras, even better. Besides, women wrote it, and it’s a comedy. Shouldn’t I be happy that anything female-oriented is out there? Shouldn’t I prefer to see that than watch Joan Allen’s prison warden bust some serious balls in Death Race? Shouldn’t I be dying to see the remake of The Women a couple of weeks from now because the title is The Women?
In a word, no. Unfortunately, however, that seems to be the “logic” that guided John McCain to pick Sarah Palin to be his running mate (if he really, truly were the “maverick” he proclaims himself to be ad nauseum, he would have chosen Joe Lieberman). Let’s throw a sop to the ladies out there who are miffed that Obama won out over Hillary. Hey, they’re women—rationality isn’t in their DNA, right? That’s why women shouldn’t aspire to the highest office in the…oh, wait. Crap. How to get around that conundrum and assuage the anti-Hillary GOP demographic? Easy. Pick a woman who fits some really archaic, soothing ideas of femininity even as she purports to break the glass ceiling (and then apparently piece it back together with Superglue). She’s a mother of five! She was in the PTA! Palin didn’t have to go out and demand her exalted position. It was given to her by an older, wiser man. She won’t really rock the gender power structure because she doesn’t think women should have jurisdiction over their bodies. She won’t try to take away everyone’s favorite toy guns. She won’t get sentimental over fuzzy animals. She so believes in God the Father that she thinks creationism should be taught in public schools (obviously, she’s not familiar with the First Amendment, either). She’ll do the mean girl dirty work and call Hillary a whiner (how that is supposed to attract Clinton’s hardcore supporters, I’m not sure). She’ll also have that new baby to nurture. And look, guys: she was a beauty queen! As a friend waggishly noted, Sarah Palin is the VPILF. She is the pretty girl who talks about power while exuding a reassuring lack of real threat. She is the House Bunny solution.
Now, I’d hope that the hardcore distaff Clintonistas to whom McCain is so nakedly pandering would be smart enough not to be fooled. Then again, I went to see The House Bunny. There’s also the distinctly tangled and ineffable matter of prejudice and where that might fit into the equation of sexism, racism, elitism, and every other -ism. Nobody wants to really discuss whether some of the Hillaryites McCain hopes to attract with his hockey mom are more turned off by Obama’s skin color than his reproductive equipment. That’s a Byzantine can of worms akin to Robert Downey Jr.’s voyage into blackface in Tropic Thunder. That’s the kind of complex mess raised by the question of why people will protest so loudly over Tropic Thunder’s use of “retard,” but nobody ever, ever says a word when someone calls a man a “pussy” onscreen (and not because he has pointy ears and whiskers). It’s a kind of stupidity that’s so deeply ingrained that four decades of activism and grudging social change have yet to fully excavate and extract it. Alas, one must never misunderestimate that stupidity.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.