In search of a credible female protagonist from Reality Bites to Frances Ha
|Clockwise from top-left: Stills from Reality Bites (1994),|
Kicking and Screaming (1995),
Frances Ha (2012) and Damsels in Distress (2011).
In that quintessentially Gen-X film, Reality Bites (1994) directed by Ben Stiller, we find Lelaina Pearce played by Winona Rider, a brilliant film graduate who finishes at the top of her class faced with a supposedly bright future. In pursuing her dreams, she ultimately faces a choice between remaining true to her authentic voice as a creative artist versus compromising on her craft for the sake of commercial success.
Her first job as a production assistant does not exercise her innate creativity, on the one hand, but her passion for filmmaking draws her to make a reality based documentary on the lives of her friends on the side. This conflict is mirrored by her love life, as she is pursued by two suitors: Troy Dyer played by Ethan Hawke, a brooding philosophy major/college drop-out/slacker who dabbles in music, and Michael Grates played by Stiller, a video executive who has all the outward trappings of success.
She tries to marry her passion and her livelihood first by pitching her documentary to the host of the show she works for who vehemently opposes it. In retaliation she pranks him by replacing the flash cards he reads on air, which gets her fired. Michael on the other hand finds her video amusing and offers to air it on his show. Everything seems to be looking up for Lelaina until the promotional package of her segment reveals how much of its serious content has been trivialised by the editing crew.
In the climax of the film, we find her in the midst of an emotional breakdown mourning her failure to be somebody by the age of 23, only to be consoled by Troy who tells her that the only person she needs to be at that age is herself, and he elaborates by giving her a breakdown of all the wonderful qualities in her that he admires. The two lock together in an embrace that symbolises Lelaina’s embrace of her true self.
The script essentially follows the marriage plot, a narrative which springs from the Victorian era, and is epitomised by Jane Austen novels, in which the travails faced by the heroine both material and romantic are eventually resolved through finding the right mate.
The reverse marriage plot is encountered in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995) in which Grover, the male protagonist played by Josh Hamilton is rejected by Jane played by Olivia D’Abo. The narrative consists of Grover’s recollections beginning with their after graduation party when the two aspiring writers parted. Faced with a choice, Grover declines to accompany Jane who goes to Prague for further study.
It doesn’t help that Grover remains stuck in the same university town rooming in with a bunch of college buddies, after she leaves, allowing familiar places to trigger memories of their time together, haunting him at every turn. One can imagine Grover churning these images in his head over and over again in a never ending loop, as he searches for answers as to why his beloved Jane, the perfect match for him in every way chose Prague over him.
In the penultimate scene of the film, Grover, in the spur of the moment, resolves to go to Prague in pursuit of Jane . Just when we think that he may finally be overcoming all the hindrances that keep him stuck in the past, allowing him the space to contemplate new experiences and new memories, the situation conspires to drag him back from that cathartic release.
In this reverse marriage plot, the men pine after the objects of their desire. The main character, Grover forms a romantic vision of Jane even before the two start dating. He reveals to her shortly after the two get acquainted that he already pictures them growing old together. This trope of the sensitive male who tragically fixates on a woman based on initial contact was first introduced in film by Walt Stillman in Metropolitan (1990). The problem is the sense of entitlement felt by these upper middle class UHBs (an acronym invented by Stillman which denotes urban haute bourgeoisie) causes them to panic at the mere thought of failure.
In this plot, the women are expected to recognise the rough diamond buried deep within these men and polish it to let their brilliance shine. If only the women stayed and allowed this to happen, that selfless act of affirming their partner would rescue him out of the rut he would otherwise remain in. It is this theme that Stillman playfully portrays in his movies. In fact in his latest one Damsels in Distress (2011) he approaches it from the woman's perspective.
In Damsels, the main character Violet played by Greta Gerwig and her female cohorts set out to find college boys with potential and seek to bring them up to scratch. The sheer ridiculousness of women taking on this mission, in an era of hook-up culture, unmasks the folly of assuming this role for them by the Grovers of this world.
Conflict arises between them when Sophie herself decides to move in with her boyfriend, an up and coming business executive, which forces Frances to lose their apartment. She eventually winds up temporarily sharing a flat with two male friends, one a charismatic player whose advances she rejects, and the other a sweet yet ineffectual male who admits an attraction to her but is unable to act upon it retiring to an aura of detached coolness.
Meanwhile, Frances’ dance career seems to be headed nowhere. Her perpetual role as an understudy in the dance company is even yanked from her at a crucial point by the head of the troupe who feels she would do better exploring other avenues. This mirrors the experience of members of Gen-Y who are left competing for unpaid intern positions in a sluggish labour market unable to move into permanent paid employment in their chosen profession.
Despite the hardships that Frances is forced to go through, the fire within her refuses to go out. Slightly tipsy at a dinner party she expresses evocatively the spark she seeks in a relationship or in life itself--the ability to create a bond between herself and her partner (or an audience for that matter), that secret world or dimension that only they inhabit in that moment of pure connection.
In the end, Frances finds a place in the dance company as a teacher and choreographer. Her true talents are finally out on display for everyone to see. The fulfillment of her passion is finally realised. She eventually finds her place in this world alright, but she doesn’t need the help of a loverboy like Troy Dyer to do so. In fact, the main relationship in Frances Ha is of an asexual nature with her friend Sophie. Together they form a depth of union that most couples could only dream of.
In the final scene, we see Frances moving into her own apartment. She becomes a whole person without having to resort to marrying or coupling. She no longer has to be embarrassed for being of a certain age without having her “shit together”. The fact that she can afford her own place without having to move in with anyone reflects the triumph of the female protagonist over the marriage plot. She has become in her own words a “real person”.
In this sense, Gerwig is able to become the authentic voice of women of her generation in a way that her friend Lena Dunham of the television series Girls and of the movie Tiny Furniture (2010) is unable to. The irony of course is that her cinematic triumph as a writer has resulted from a real life partnership both professional and romantic with Baumbach. This is not a case of life imitating art, but of art defying life itself.