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Dear Will Ferrell: Depicting Sexism Isn’t Enough

Dear Will Ferrell: Depicting Sexism Isn't Enough

As the buffoonish Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell made the world laugh at sexist pigs who have trouble accepting the fact that women are pretty good at lots of things, including the arduous task of reading aloud from a teleprompter in front of a camera. 

Ferrell announced that he will return to the seventies for an upcoming film to play tennis player Bobby Riggs, the former world champion who foolhardily challenged Billie Jean King to the 1973 match the “Battle of the Sexes,” which he lost — in front of 50 million viewers. 

Titled Match Maker, the film will be adapted from a 2013 ESPN Magazine story that raises the possibility that Riggs threw the match to pay off some gambling debts he owed to the mob. 

I won’t deny that there isn’t a great story to be told about Riggs, or that plenty of great movies have been made about losers, but it’s just a bit galling that Hollywood has taken one of the greatest stories of feminist triumph in the last century and made it about a dude. The film may be about how that dude is a chauvinistic jerk: the whole point in challenging first then-world champion Margaret Court (who lost to Riggs) and then King and was to prove that at age 55, no female athlete was his equal. But it’s still ultimately about a dude, and the consequent devaluation of women’s stories that decision implies. (The fact that it’s currently being sold as a Will Ferrell movie — with no word on King’s casting — might also suggest a diminution of her role in the film.)

Match Maker, then, brings us back to the important gender-based debates many TV critics had about True Detective, a show about sexist men in a sexist world investigating sexist crimes. Some critics were just fine with that, arguing that showrunner Nic Pizzolatto made it abundantly clear that viewers weren’t supposed to identify with Rust and Marty’s (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) bullshit. “True Detective treats its female characters badly,” wrote Slate critic Willa Paskin. “That’s the point.”

Watching men being called out on their sexism has its own satisfactions, but I’d rather watch fully developed female protagonists. Whatever its critiques of femicide, a story like True Detective‘s first season still revolves around men, still hires male actors in the lead roles, still hews to white men as the default. All of that occurs in a medium and a social context where (white) males constitute the majority of protagonists on TV and film. 

And sometimes, simply the depiction of an offensive act — no matter how it’s framed — has the potential to annoy or to hurt. If there’s anything to be gleaned from last week’s #CancelColbert outrage, it’s that simply hearing the words “ching-chong ding-dong” is insulting to some Asian-American viewers, no matter the intention or the framing device around it, especially when uttered by a white performer. 

A movie like Match Maker, then, gives me pause because it reinforces the idea that a story about a man being a jerk to a woman is still more worth telling than a story about a woman. Sure, I get that Ferrell is a top-tier actor who is really good at his job, but I don’t really want to see him act like a sexist asshole to Billie Jean King (even though Riggs was a sexist asshole), even if it’s just to make fun of Riggs. We all already see enough of that bullshit in real life. 

[h/t The Guardian]

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