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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

In Noah Baumbach’s most recent
film, ‘While We’re Young,’ the smartest person in the room is Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a talented
ice cream maker and the young wife of an ambitious young film director named
Jamie (Adam Driver), who, we find out later on, is also stealing many of her ideas. While the
film on surface is about aging and art, a major subtext of ‘While We’re Young’
has to do with the ways that gender dynamics shape relationships. After all,
even though there is a twenty-year age gap between Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), and Jamie
and Darby, the men in both couples push away the possibility for true
collaboration with their wives.

In A.O. Scott’s review of the film,
he argues that gender is a major blindspot in Baumbach’s films. He comments on
the fact that Baumbach, like many other male film directors, treats ambition
like it’s “…a guy thing. Men make movies. Women make ice cream and babies, or
help the men make the movies.” But where Scott sees a pat dismissal of the
female experience, I think Baumbach is actually doing something more
challenging with his female characters. In a world where we often doubt whether
female characters can still be perceived as “strong” if they long for romance
or babies, Baumbach offers a vision of femininity in which there is power in being
gentle.

Films like ‘The Squid and The Whale’, ‘Greenberg,’ and ‘While We’re Young’ are fascinated with the lives of men who are
often disdainful of their female companions, too self-absorbed to acknowledge
them as having an interior world that is equally as complex as their own. 

In ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ for
example, we see husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels), expressing contempt for his ex-wife’s
burgeoning literary accomplishments as he flounders and fails to write a
successful new novel. The father’s frustration with his wife’s success
manifests as misogynistic instructing of his own son, Walt. He implores him not
settle down too soon, and seems to be unimpressed by the looks and talent of
his son’s girlfriend, who is portrayed as exceptionally warm, smart and kind,
actually reading the books her boyfriend professes to have read.

Likewise, in ‘Greenberg,’ Florence (Greta Gerwig),
the young housekeeper who is trying to figure out life, is portrayed as far
more stable, dependable, smart and interesting than older and supposedly wiser
Roger (Ben Stiller), who suffers from extreme anxiety, and just as extreme narcissism. It is
clear throughout ‘Greenberg’ that Florence could do a lot better than Roger, but
the criticism that Florence is not a developed character, or exists merely to
inspire change in Roger, seems patently unfair. Throughout the film Florence is
portrayed as bright and vivacious, though she is very insecure, and the film
begins and ends by focusing on her perspective, rather than Roger’s.

As a feminist critic I’ve been
taught to be wary of female characters like Florence, young, talented and
beautiful, yet strangely vulnerable, and willing to put up with a lot of male
bad behavior. We’re in an anti manic pixie dream girl moment, perhaps the
backlash from a few years where every female character on screen seemed to have
a bit of manic pixie dream girl magic about her. Initially meant to describe a
particular type of inspirational female character who existed to help a male
narrator along his journey, the term came to mean any female character who was
portrayed as quirky, gentle, and offbeat. 

Even the creator of the term,
Nathan Rabin, would eventually apologize for inadvertently creating the clichéd buzzword.  In his 2014 piece for Salon, he argues that
the term is actually being used to devalue female characters, rather than
criticize the limited roles that women have on screen. The term manic pixie
dream girl is used to criticize a particular kind of girl, one who likes Zooey
Deschanel bangs, and kittens, and quirky, gentle things, like knitting and
xylophones and pretty art.

In short, the term has evolved as a
kind of catch-all to dismiss female artistic potential. Youthful male energy is
cast as exhilarating, creative and powerful, while youthful female energy is presented
as lacking gravitas. (A male ice-cream maker with the kind of talent Darby
exhibits would be presented as a talented businessman, not a burgeoning
housewife, as AO Scott suggests in his review.)

As Eva Wiseman argues in her review
of Miranda July’s latest novel, ‘The First Bad Man,’ female creative talent is often dismissed
with words like quirky, as if liking glitter and kittens is antithetical to
producing work that is serious and substantive.

She says of July’s novel, “Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute.
To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened.
Occasionally a male artist is labelled quirky, but usually because his style is
perceived as feminine. ‘Surreal.’ In fact, male artists who are similar to
July, whose work is unusual and prolific and who divides critics, are likely to
be labelled geniuses. A genius, perhaps, is a male artist whose work is
difficult to define. While with a female artist we have the word right here,
ready. It’s ‘quirky’.”

Later in her article, Wiseman goes
on to suggest that the use of manic pixie dream girls in films contributes to
invalidating the importance of female creativity. In reality, I think it’s the
disdain for femininity that leads us to assume that delicate female characters
are unworthy of respect or recognition. The female characters in Baumbach’s
films may often be dealing with men who have the potential to lash out and be
abusive, but that doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets.  At the end of ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ a son
who idealizes his father learns to see their divorce from the perspective of
his mother. At the end of ‘Greenberg,’ Florence listens to a rambling message
from Roger. At the start of the movie she pleaded with traffic, “Are you going
to let me in?” In the end, she is the one who gets to answer that question.
Will she continue to date Roger? Will she let him go? Florence’s becoming aware
of her own power is just as important in the film as Roger coming to terms with
his being an abusive jerk a lot of the time.

A look at Noah Baumbach’s women
would be incomplete without a consideration of the brilliant and beautiful
film, ‘Frances Ha,’ a film that is first and foremost about female friendship. In
it, two young women, Frances and Sophie, grow together and apart from each
other, as they each struggle to make it, both professionally and personally, in
New York. In one of the most moving and memorable moments in the movie, Frances
drunkenly describes what she wants out of a relationship to a few acquaintances
she has just met at a dinner party:

“It’s that thing when
you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and
you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and
you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each
other’s eyes… but—but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely
sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and
sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that
exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s
sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we
don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s—That’s what I want out of a
relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

Towards the very end
of the film, Baumbach presents a scene at a party celebrating Frances’
choreography for a modern dance show, where we see Frances and Sophie lock
eyes. “That’s Sophie. She’s my best friend.” While a show like ‘Girls’ often
paints girliness as vapid or cruel (we spend a lot of time waiting for Hannah
and her friends to grow up and stop being girls, after all), ‘Frances Ha’ insists
on a vision of female friendship that is imperfect, but also genuinely tender.

There were echoes of
this kind of gentle warmth in another one of my favorite films about women’s
lives and relationships, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (another film about women
directed by a man) where the young lovers meet again, years later at an art
show. At a time when many feel skeptical about the ability of male artists to
effectively convey the female experience, I remain heartened by the idea that
the creation of interesting, complex characters is not limited by one’s
experience of gender. At a time where “strong female characters” are still
often thought of in regards to the “warrior” archetype (the Ripleys and
Furiosas of the screen), it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of femininity that
doesn’t need to be pumped up or loud or physically powerful. It just needs to
be genuinely human.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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