The Women (2008)

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It’s possible that this is the worst film about women ever made by women. It’s also possible it is the most disappointing remake of all times. What an opportunity – to take the crackling wit of the 1939 George Cukor original and show what has changed for women in 70 years. Instead they give us a sexless Sex and the City, short on charm and long on white privilege. 

For those who know the original, it’s a story of Mary Haines, married to a successful and well known man, who discovers through idle chatter at a beauty salon that he is having an affair with a woman who works in the same department store; shop girl Crystal. Notable for its cast of only women, in The Women, we see Mary’s dilemma as she seeks advice from friends and tries to decide what to do.

The original is known for its witty Clare Boothe Luce/Anita Loos dialogue that allows Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford to create sparklingly defined characters on screen. They are the kind of women you’d want to hang out with or, in Crawford’s case, make a scapegoat for your disappointed ambition. As with so many women’s films of the time, we get to see women grappling with who they are and what they can achieve as women, exploring independence and whether they truly believe the stereotype that fulfilment can only come through love, marriage and children. Such films usually end with an affirmation of exactly that, albeit after an hour or more of considering much more exciting alternatives.

So 70 years on, are the choices for women framed differently? Not really. Meg Ryan plays Haines and her journey to self realisation is characterised by sleeker hair, a better wardrobe and starting her own instantly successful fashion business without breaking a sweat. This also instantly makes her a much better mother to her daughter, something she couldn’t previously achieve as she was distracted by a boring job and driven to selfish wallowing by a cheating husband. Even having a full time housekeeper and full time nanny left her no time for her daughter.

She is portrayed as more grounded and down to earth than her contemporaries, evidenced by her hosting some event that relates vaguely to a garden and she cooks the food for it herself! Considering she has a housekeeper who is the one seen doing all the domestics, Mary ‘cooking it all herself’ probably means she decided on the menu and finessed the table decorations. She is also portrayed as dismally naive about her ‘duties as a wife’, out of her depth as she shops for sexy lingerie, oblivious to the fact that her frizzy hair has driven her husband to infidelity. The message is that she is equally culpable for her husband’s behaviour, something that we could forgive in 1939 but not today.

Equally offensive is the characterisation of her rival Crystal (Eva Mendes) as a brainless, valueless, heartless lower class tramp. That she is Hispanic feeds the worn out trope of Latina women’s cinematic purpose being predominantly for sex or domestic servitude. She has no redeeming features and, other than the visual pleasure of watching Eva Mendes slinking up the screen, she serves only to make the insipid Mary seem all the more saintly.

The other characters are an interesting study in unsubtle stereotyping. Annette Benning is best friend Sylvie; she is the Miranda of the friendship group, outspoken, career-driven, ambitious to succeed and freaked out by small children. She is given the most screen time and there are some awkward scenes that sound like they were scripted by a man – a man who has never listened to women talk to each other. The magazine meeting where they all ‘throw around ideas’ illustrates that Sylvie is ‘old’ but that being young means having no values. Her excruciating talk with Mary’s prepubescent daughter about sex is unbearably shallow but shows Mary’s ineptitude at even the most basic womanly tasks.

The two other friends are Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith). Edie is the quintessential broodmare, constantly pregnant, always eating and with her numerous children (named January, April, May and June) running amok. It is such a ludicrous and clumsy cliché, the opposite to Mary but not in a good way. Alex, refreshingly, is a lesbian but she is portrayed in a stereotypically masculine way; she offers little emotional support, dates supermodels, takes her friends to dinner at a restaurant decorated with erotic art and is horrified at the idea of looking at Edie’s vulva when she is in labour – “Don’t point that thing at me!”. Really? I have trouble imagining any woman being phased by the sight of a vulva, least of all a lesbian.

Overall characterisation and dialogue is clumsy. There are some sparkling minor characters who flit in and out and are gone – Candice Bergen as Mary’s mother, Bette Midler as an agent and Carrie Fisher as a potential writer for Sylvie’s magazine. Cloris Leachman plays Mary’s housekeeper Maggie with scenes that seem to have been lifted from ten other movies, making no real sense in this one. There are some jokes about Botox, ironic considering the number of frozen faces, and plot holes and errors aplenty – if you can sit this film out until the end, tell me where are the coats in the fashion show?

In conclusion, if you are ever tempted to see this film, watch the original instead.

Watched on Netflix.

Bechdel test – pass
0.5 stars

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