The Faux Feminism of “Booksmart”

When did going to the movies become an act of political protest? When did we erase the boundary between the ticket booth and the picket line? I’m not so historically ignorant as to assert that there was no place for politics in the cinema before Trump came to power: I still remember the ridiculous uproar over Fahrenheit 9/11, and the even more embarrassing reaction to 2016: Obama’s America. However, I remember those films being the exception, not the rule: in 2004, and even still in 2012, incendiary political documentaries received a national release about as often as a unicorn appeared on the White House lawn. So rare were they that they were considered mandatory viewing almost automatically—at least for those of us who took a serious interest in film. The curious consequence of this was that, we the film buffs—most of whom were not especially political—suddenly found convenient means of political participation, if only once or twice in a decade.

Like so many other things, that has changed dramatically in the Trumpish Age. Unlike any of his presidential predecessors, Trump has enjoyed a mass-media compatibility that probably says more about the public’s intellectual failings than it does his. He is always on, and always on our minds, and hitherto, we have failed to shut him off, as Peter Griffin articulated just a few months ago. The disturbing consequence of this is that, within the media, everything is cast in Trump’s shadow. All media becomes a kind of Rorschach test, the maddening solution to which is the image’s likeness to Trump. We no longer ask ourselves, “What is this?” Instead, we ask ourselves, “What does this say about Trump? What does this tell us about Trump? What does this suggest we should expect from Trump?”

Cinematically, the first casualty—but, really, the first beneficiary—of this popular obsession was Wonder Woman. Although the titular character had been a fixture of American culture since the 1940s, and even though a film based on this character had been under development since the 1990s, and even though principal photography began in the autumn of 2015, the finished product wasn’t released to theaters until the summer of 2017—several months after Trump took office, and almost a year after we first heard him say, “Grab them by the pussy.” Clearly, there wasn’t any substantive or meaningful connection between Wonder Woman and the Trump Administration, but that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from capitalizing on the newly tumultuous political culture to promote the film: as a character, Wonder Woman became a symbol of mainstream feminism; and therefore, millions of women who ordinarily would have had no interest in a superhero movie suddenly found political and moral incentive to see the film. Watching an apolitical movie became an act of political protest.

“Wait just a minute,” the skeptic interjects. “How is this any different from the example you cited just a few minutes ago? How is this any more ominous than the phenomenon of the apolitical film buffs watching a political documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11?” I understand that, in both cases, we are considering the hoodwinking of a gullible consumer public; nevertheless, there is a remarkable difference in the naturality of behavior. When the film buffs who had no consistent interest in or credible knowledge of politics watched Fahrenheit 9/11, they watched it because it had become a major cinematic event. They would have watched any film of such cultural prominence, regardless of its political leanings, or lack thereof. In other words, they were just watching a movie, which is the same thing they would have been doing if Fahrenheit 9/11 had never been produced.

In the case of Wonder Woman, we have a group of people—supporters of mainstream feminism—who, as I mentioned previously, ordinarily would not have taken any interest in a superhero film, but who watch it because they see perceive some link between the film and mainstream feminism’s push against the Trump Administration. Something tells me that those mainstream feminists who were so excited for Wonder Woman did not express the same enthusiasm for Doctor Strange and Suicide Squad. In watching Wonder Woman, their behavior was conspicuously different from their own standard or norm. Accordingly, we must determine if this change of conduct, however minor it may seem to be, signifies an improvement or a degradation.

I am not a fan of superhero films. They are often unambitious, relying on threadbare moral clichés and stock characters to populate a viscerally overactive world. Seldom do we learn anything from a superhero film. The greatest of the genre is probably Kick-Ass, but that film is a satire; as such, it is really more of an inversion of the genre, a betrayal of it, and therefore not a true representative. Wonder Woman is a much more typical example, one that relies entirely on the formulaic standard established by its many predecessors. It was painlessly unoriginal, and its rigid commitment to the boilerplate was especially disappointing, coming from Patty Jenkins, the film’s director: fourteen years after she astonished me with Monster, she paints by the numbers with Wonder Woman.

None of this mattered, though, as the incurably amnesiac American viewing public was predictably delighted with Wonder Woman. What was less foreseeable was the universal praise showered on the film by those in higher places—not just the film critics, but political and social commentators, too. They applauded Wonder Woman as a feminist success, as a victory for women everywhere in these misogynistic times. I’m not sure how women everywhere benefited from the release of this film; I suspect that the women in the executive branches of Time Warner benefited, but how does the film’s $800 million global gross redound to an overworked mother who cannot pay her rent? I have no problem with someone enjoying Wonder Woman as a midday diversion, but to suggest it is feminist in a meaningful way is pathetically puerile.

The film itself isn’t feminist, either. It’s a fantasy film, an action movie, one whose primary appeal is in watching the titular superhero dodge bullets and create explosions. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf, and it differs from Spider-Man and Superman only in the protagonist’s sex. Meanwhile, the screenplay, otherwise known as the substance of the story, offers us no thoughtful departure from the indistinguishable muck of the Avengers films. Feminism is supposed to lead us out of the claustrophobic confines of conventional thinking, not reinforce them through a casting change that is ultimately cosmetic. Even on that superficial level, it isn’t innovative: the year 2004, the same in which Fahrenheit 9/11 was released, saw the release of Elektra and Catwoman, two major studio productions starring women as superheroes. Wonder Woman was much more successful, critically and financially, but clearly, it was not the pioneering project that so many gullible people believed it to be. And lest we fool ourselves into thinking that the movie played exclusively to houses full of feminist philosophers, something tells me that the same grubby man-child who likes Thor didn’t have a problem staring at Gal Gadot in a skirt.

If Wonder Woman is feminist, it is feminist only in the sense of corporate feminism, of the false feminism that makes no reference to economic justice, and therefore is acceptable to the elites. It’s a depressing bastardization of a worthy cause, but then again, it didn’t start with Wonder Woman: it started with the Democratic Party, who co-opted feminism and stripped it of its strength in order to convince well-meaning people to vote for their pool of corrupted lawmakers. These people have repurposed feminism as a cynical marketing tool, an empty rallying cry for someone like Hillary Clinton, who claims to support women’s autonomy while orchestrating military violence against African women. It’s a dispiriting state of affairs, indeed, and Wonder Woman is probably the least troubling of the volatile pieces.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the final example of pseudo-feminist cinema fobbed off on a gullible and undiscriminating public. In the Trumpish Age, feminism has become a basic unit of political currency—but again, it is corporate feminism, anti-feminism that appeals most strongly to middle- and upper-middle-class voters, male and female. It does not push for an overhaul of existing class and governmental structures, and it certainly doesn’t push for any displacement of these moribund institutions; instead, it instructs us to consume the cursory offerings of media conglomerates, as if crowding into a theater with the rest of the masses somehow constitutes political revolution. Trump has opened up an enormous market for this kind of propaganda, the consequence of which is that he is owed a debt of gratitude from the producers of a film like Wonder Woman. Would their film have been as successful, had Clinton won the election?

In any event, the cinema is currently home to another work of pseudo-feminist claptrap. The film in question is Booksmart, a comedy directed by a woman, written by four women, and starring two women—an uncommonly feminine staff, especially by the standards of a Hollywood production, hence my confusion as to why the team expended their efforts on such a familiar story. The premise of the film is centered on Molly and Amy, best friends and high school graduates-to-be, who have spent their entire upbringings dedicating themselves to schoolwork in pursuit of academic success. Alas, on the eve of graduation, Molly learns that her classmates, none of them worked particularly hard to earn good grades, have been admitted to colleges as prestigious as the one that she will be attending, or else have lined up careers that are just as appealing as hers will likely be. Devastated to learn that the scholastic system does not reward only students who are as single-minded as she, Molly decides to spend the evening partying for the first time in her life, and she brings Amy along for the raunchy ride.

If you have any experience of the adolescent sex comedy subgenre—many writers have compared Booksmart to Superbad, but American Pie and Dazed and Confused come to mind, as well—then you already know everything that is going to take place over the course of Booksmart. Molly and Amy unintentionally consume psychedelics, witness aberrant sex, and enter steamy situations with the boy and girl of their respective dreams. In other words, absolutely nothing unexpected occurs. It’s the foundation of the formula, the disembodied essence of the basic template. This is the same thing we’ve seen too many times before, and in this tumultuous age, timidity is the most egregious of all artistic sins.

Strangely, you would never gleam this from the reviews. Only two professional critics have written of this film with disapproval, while dozens of others have written with praise, and with effulgence, no less. Most of these critics have acknowledged this movie’s similarity to the films of yesteryear, but only in the form of an observation; on the rare occasion that it is recognized as a possible flaw, the critic reassures us that Booksmart is less a replication than a reinvention of the genre, breaking down the stereotypes to create something new. Unfortunately, this proposal couldn’t be any further from the truth, and the falsity of this claim is so strikingly obvious, the only plausible explanation is that the critics are lying.

That is, of course, until we examine the political undercurrent in almost every critic’s review. Not unlike Wonder Woman, much of the praise for Booksmart surpasses the film’s artistic merits and speculates as to its political utility. However, unlike Wonder Woman, which wasn’t really made to be political so much as it became political through the unrelated events of 2016, Booksmart brings its politics to the foreground. In the opening scene, the camera lingers on the decorations of Molly’s bedroom: she has pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a poster based on Jane Eyre, and a placard proclaiming the right to abortion. Her car is similarly covered with anti-Trump, pro-Warren, and pro-choice bumper stickers. None of it has anything to do with the storyline, of course, but it informs the audience that Molly is a feminist. Apparently, this is important, although I don’t know why, since, again, it has no connection to the story.

A number of critics have suggested that Booksmart is feminist as well as innovative because, while there are plenty of adolescent sex comedies out there, none of them feature young women as the main protagonists. Hitherto, they have always taken the secondary role of sex objects, but now, in this film, they control the scene. This is probably true, but can anyone explain to me why this ought to be considered a success, much less an improvement for the lot of women? Booksmart does not depict two young women who make themselves strong. It depicts two young women who degrade and humiliate themselves by behaving in a shameless, bacchanalian manner. The action consists of these protagonists reducing themselves to the standard of the lowest common denominator. It’s not an act of liberation; it’s an act of deconstruction, which explains why, by the film’s conclusion, Molly and Amy are, by all appearances, the same people they were at the movie’s start.

If anything, Booksmart reveals just how vacuous the subgenre is. With the possible exceptions of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, the subgenre has always been centered on the pursuit of petty, squalid, infantile pleasures, that pursuit being undertaken by stupid, shallow people—as it must be, since no thoughtful person would be involved in such foolishness. Perhaps we cannot reasonably expect anything more out of American teenagers, but that doesn’t mean we should take their misadventures at face value. The only option is critique through deconstruction, but it requires a lot more effort than the lazy replacement of narcissistic and delusional boys by narcissistic and delusional girls. Either approach can produce effective humor—although I chuckled only once in the whole of Booksmart—but neither is inherently thoughtful or ambitious.

Nevertheless, the critical consensus is that Booksmart is a thoughtful and ambitious film. It appears that the producers of this film have pulled the wool over the critics’ eyes in almost the same way that the producers of Wonder Woman conned the same reviewers two years ago. The only notable difference is that Booksmart has emerged as a box office bomb. Hardly anybody paid to see it this past weekend. I was the only patron at my screening, sitting alone in an auditorium that feels more like a graveyard with every passing year. It didn’t take long for the film’s director to warn us that, if we didn’t purchase tickets, then Hollywood would continue to reject the idea of women as artists. A writer in The New York Times elaborated on this theme, asking whether the standards by which we judge success are inherently misogynistic.

Personally, I believe the film’s failure at the box office says more about the imminent demise of theatrical exhibition than it does anything about society’s attitudes toward female directors. There is simply no reason why a person in this struggling economy should spend $13 on a ticket for this film when it will probably be streaming on Netflix before the end of the summer. It’s too much of a gamble for a film that might not even be your cup of tea. Furthermore, it makes very little sense to claim that the film failed for political reasons after claiming that Wonder Woman succeeded for the same: why didn’t the feminists who supposedly flooded theaters for Wonder Woman show up for Booksmart? This is the same irrational argument that conservatives make every time one of Dinesh D’Souza’s works of political pornography crashes and burns at the box office. Something tells me we will have this discussion once again.

For a more detailed explanation of the film’s political incoherence, I would definitely recommend reading this fine piece by Vince Mancini of Uproxx. He illustrates the problem of iconography and empty sloganeering with impressive skill.

I would also encourage you to take a look at this review of Superbad, written by Matt Cale, the unsung hero of film criticism. He deconstructs the problem of the subgenre so perfectly that I didn’t think it was worth my time to expand on his work here.

For supplemental reading, take a look at the aforementioned New York Times article. It’s bad, but it’s worth knowing what the mainstream political commentators are up to.

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