If you have even an ounce of self-love, oh my movie-going Sisters then you will spare yourselves the agony of “The Women” opening in theaters today. This remake of the exquisitely campy 1939 George Cukor classic about acid-tongued women competing for men has been updated and de-fanged for a kinder, gentler, post-feminist, Girl Powered audience. And it sucks.
The original 1939 film about a cuckolded wife losing her man to a cheap hussy, going to Reno for a “quickie” divorce, then finally getting her revenge and her man back, starred a glittering lineup of actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Mary Boland. Based on the play by Clare Booth Luce, “The Women” was notable for not having a single male ever appear on camera. Though men were invisible, they were ever-present, the object of the women’s endless plotting and feuding. The coiffed and idle she-wolves gossiped and backstabbed with heady élan – they were exercising what power they had in the pre-Feminist world of 1939: their beauty and their wits.
As feminism emerged in the 70’s, seeking to further women's personal, political and economic power, women were exhorted to see each other not as competition, but as sisters in arms in the fight for equality. A laudable notion, but one that made Cukor’s “The Women” something of a guilty pleasure – a politically incorrect bon-bon that has kept smart, snarky women, (and the gay men who love us) secretly cackling through our late night Haagen Dazs for decades.
Enter the remake -- a sad, empty shell of its former self, a bland and unfunny, politically correct pot of comedy tapioca. It’s not just that the script is a tepid, jangly collection of cliché’s and dull yuks. Nor is it the way English (of Murphy Brown) directs the film like a hokey sitcom that has already jumped the shark. It’s not even that she takes some of our best female comedic talent and coaxes bogus, mawkish performances out of them (honestly, how do you get Annette Bening to suck?). It’s that this movie stands as an artifact of the shambles feminism lies in after fifteen toxic years of “Girl Power.”
Somewhere toward the end of the last century, “Feminism,” that thorny, hot-under-the-collar, outspoken bitch, got batted aside by the far more kittenish, media-friendly notion of “Girl Power.” A sound bite ideology brought to us first by those icons of female strength and wisdom, The Spice Girls. Girl Power was sassy and fit nicely on a baby-tee. “You go girl!” a vague directive at best, exhorted us to be done with all our fussing and fighting and just focus on shopping and accessorizing and dressing for success. Instead of burning our bras, we let our g-strings show, because Girl Power as taught us that owning our sexuality is all the power we really need. Girl Power made old-school, politically-focused feminism feel as appealing as a belted Kotex – uncomfortable and out of date.
The fact that a group of smart, funny, experienced, talented women old enough to know better would make a film this inane, is heartbreaking. Say what you will about the deplorable bitchery of the first film, at least those ladies had razor-sharp claws, but in the remake they purr and sulk and lick their wounds. The original film crescendos with Joan Crawford saying point blank to her frenemies: “There’s a name for you, but it is seldom used in polite society or outside a kennel.” In the remake that line is delivered as an aside by Bening to a literal bitch, her lapdog.
The girl-empowered women of “The Women” are goopily supportive, weeping on each others shoulders, wallowing in guilt. In one scene, Mary comes home to find her teenage daughter (who we can assume has been raised on American Girl and Hanna Montana) burning tampons (because A: its just so easy to blame our vaginas for our problems and B: we need our metaphors to clobber us). Rather than discussing with her daughter what being a woman in today’s world might actually mean beyond heartbreak and menstrual cramps, Mary instead apologizes to her daughter for being so self-focused. Anger is sublimated once again by guilt – a logical outcome for women who have been given no sense of history outside of personal history.
As the story crescendos, Mary’s character development is signaled not by good acting or smart dialogue but rather by a stunning act of hairdo feminism: Mary irons her naturally curly hair into submission. In a classic movie resolution she transforms herself from frumpy hausfrau into a sleek, stiletto-heeled glamazon, and really shows ‘em all. Once she has completely discarded her authentic self, and has her new, designer, Carrie Bradshaw-esque look in place, she is finally ready to take on the biggest challenge of all: painting her nails Jungle Red and getting her man back.
The film is brought to you by Dove which does nothing to hide its corporate agenda. Its message of “real beauty” is slathered over every scene. Dove commercials play in the middle of scenes, products litter the women’s countertops, and everyone pays collagened lip service to the no-duh truth that fashion models don’t actually look that hot in real life. Meanwhile, unacknowledged is Ryan’s obvious extensive plastic surgery, which makes her look like someone trick or treating as Meg Ryan circa 1992, rather than the forty-seven year-old woman she, in fact, is. Her girly mask is incongruous beside Bening’s who is only three years her senior, not fifteen, as it would seem. Ryan’s face belies the film’s (and Dove’s) canned beauty message signaling the total capitulation of the discussion of feminine beauty to feelgood corporate sound bites. Back in the old, cold cream days of 1939 women had to make the most of what they had: their beauty and their wits. Today we trade in our faces for new ones in a desperate attempt to hang onto our Girl Power, having clearly lost our wits along the way.
All of this would be bad enough in a regular week, but a lipsticked pitbull has been in the headlines recently, threatening to use her own Girl Power to set back the goals of feminism another thirty years. Movies like “The Women” set the stage for Sarah Palin, who has been correctly identified by Gloria Steinem as “Phylis Schlafly, only younger.” Will we fall for Sarah Palin’s updo, good skin and interesting frames and vote against our own interests in the upcoming election? There was a time when women spoke up, but right now we’re too busy shopping for our ass-kicking outfits to actually kick any ass. It is all so terrifying that I have to ask, as Miriam Aarons does in the original 1939 film, “Listen Sister, when are you gonna get wise to yourself?”