Indie Movies Can Be Sexist, Too

The new indie flick, 500 Days of Summer, is getting some flak from the feminist commentariat for its gender politics, particularly its use of a new female stereotype.

In recent years, bloggers and websites (most notably the Onion, here) have been keeping track of a Hollywood archetype known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or magical pixie dream girl, or indie dream girl, etc.) Harkening back to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s this character is small, quirky, and exuberant, with the requisite interesting fashion sense. But her function isn’t to blossom and grow as a unique individual over the course of the film. Instead, she awakens creativity, hope, romance, or whatever else was sleeping within the male protagonist. She is the catalyst for his change or his feelings, but she inevitably doesn’t have much a personality of her own underneath the endearing eccentricities.

Summer, the heroine of 500 Days of Summer, apparently fits the mold. Willa Paskin slams the politics embedded within this most recent film at Double X:

There’s no critique of the fact that Tom is totally oblivious to
Summer’s inner life, emotions, issues. He’s sweet! He’s in love! How
could she not love him back? She really, really should! The fact that
she doesn’t love him back (plus a late developing, implausible plot
twist) makes her seem unknowable and heartless, even though Tom has
never tried to know her—he’s been too busy being in love with her.


Paskin and others are right to call "offbeat" films to task for indulging in the same sexist tripe as the big-budget rom-coms do. An artily-filmed indie film with a clever heroine (even if she’s played by an actress who graced the cover of Bust) does not a feminist statement make. And as all battle-worn feminists know, the kind of insidious sexism that comes from countercultural or even leftist corners can be hard to combat because of its progressive, hip facade.

But the upside is that drawing parallels between different iterations of the same stereotypes can be really instructive. I’m sure the 500 Days creative folks are not relishing all the He’s Just Not That Into You comparisons their film is getting, but maybe that reference hits home in a way that feminist deconstruction does not.

Beyond our critique of the films that disappoint us, we can still dream of a heroine who’s not a dream girl. As Doree Shafrir, in her piece about 500 Days writes at The Daily Beast:

What about a romantic comedy about a woman who actually has opinions,
who doesn’t play hard to get, who articulates her hopes and dreams and
expects her boyfriend to get excited about those, too? Or is that too
much to ask even from indie Hollywood?

It may be too much to ask, but we have to keep asking anyway.

The last time I can remember a romantic comedy with a real, relatable, capable-of-growth, posssessing-an-inner-life heroine (albeit a quirky, eccentric one) was Juno. And that was wrapped in a creepily-anti choice, pro-female self-sacrifice plot structure which made the film a mixed bag for feminists. It was almost as if a three-dimensional female protagonist was only allowed through the gates of existence by doing penance–fulfilling the conservative fantasy of the willing baby-giving-up teen mom–within her film’s storyline.

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  • invalid-0

    I’d argue that the character Verona from Away We Go fits into the category of a “real, relatable, capable-of-growth, posssessing-an-inner-life heroine.” She and Bert are obviously in love, but she still has her own backstory, life, dreams.

  • invalid-0

    Why is the film Juno anti-choice? Both the director and lead actress are pro-choice. I thought the defintion of pro-choice was supporting all choices a woman makes (parenting, abortion, adoption). In the movie the title character chooses to not have an abortion out of an informed choice she makes without coercion from others. Yes, there’s the “your baby has fingernails moment” but the meek protesting girl is hardly what I would consider an anti-choice bully. It isn’t anti-choice to decide to have a baby.

    However, if the anti-choice complaint is because few movies show women obtaining abortions (one of Amanda Marcotte’s favorite complaints) then that is another matter. As a film buff and writer, I would say that is because abortion is not a good plot device. It is essentially a “failure moment.” After all, in other contexts to “abort” something usually denotes a failure of some kind (Like we had to “abort the mission). Having a legal abortion is a situation where we find it hard to root for the protagonist. Only when the protagonist must face a challenge to have an abortion (abuse, illegal abortion , etc.) do we root for them like in the films Cider House Rules, Revolutionary Road, and 4 months 3 weeks and two days.

    Also, most writers don’t broach the subject becuase the vast majority of people, pro-choice or not, find abortion sad, wrong to a certain degree, creepy, and just downright unpleasant.

    • invalid-0

      My complaint would be the irresponsible portrayal of the abortion clinic. The teenage reception who talks about the smell of her boyfriend’s genitals? That’s not exactly realistic, but if you watch it with the commentary it was a joke to the woman who wrote the screenplay. She just thought it was funny, and that’s how the lone pro-life protester was portrayed too. It was a comedy, not a drama, so I’d say it’s a forgivable offense on the part of Juno.

  • invalid-0

    I agree. Juno definitely portrayed abortion as a choice. The one anti-choice character in the movie was portrayed as a religious kook. I know lots of women who are pro-choice but know that they probably would choose adoption if they got unexpectedly pregnant. The difference is that they wouldn’t begrudge another woman a different choice. I believe Juno is consistent with that sentiment.

  • invalid-0

    I saw some previews of the movie “JUNO” when it first came out and immediately resolved not to see it, first because I’m not a big fan of comedy, generally, and, secondly, because I felt that the film “JUNO” satirized and glorified something that’s a real big problem here in the United States: Teenage pregnancy.

    • invalid-0

      Yes, it was all roses and sunshine for Juno. Although her family was accepting and supportive, they frequently reminded her that they thought she was an idiot. Although the physical effects of pregnancy weren’t gone into much, the psychological ones were addressed. Juno felt stupid because she was pregnant. Juno felt isolated and alienated because the evidence of what she had done was on her abdomen like her own scarlet letter and her peers judged her for it. The boy she had sex with, however, was not judged and no one even cared about what he did. Yeah, the movie was a comedy so these issues weren’t addressed often, but they were underlying. Juno did face conflicts and emotional turmoil regarding her pregnancy and relationship with the males in her life afterwards.

      Teens can be good parents, too, believe it or not. Saying “teen pregnancy” is a problem is rather prejudice towards teen parents.

  • invalid-0

    Juno felt stupid because she was pregnant. Juno felt isolated and alienated because the evidence of what she had done was on her abdomen like her own scarlet letter and her peers judged her for it. The boy she had sex with, however, was not judged and no one even cared about what he did. Yeah, the movie was a comedy so these issues weren’t addressed often, but they were underlying. Juno did face conflicts and emotional turmoil regarding her pregnancy and relationship with the males in her life afterwards. Teens can be good parents, too, believe it or not. Saying “teen pregnancy” is a problem is rather prejudice towards teen parents.

    Frankly, I think that the above-mentioned quote from your post underscores the problems of teenaged pregnancy. First of all, it’s a known fact that girls under twenty who become pregnant and give birth are at greater risk of having a baby with various birth defects, as well as having a premature baby, because teenaged mothers themselves have not yet attained total physical maturity, and becoming pregnant at that age deprives their still-developing bodies, as well as that of the baby growing inside them the necessary nutrients, vitamins and minerals that they both need. Secondly, a teenaged girl’s mental health can be endangered as a consequence of a pregnancy also. Thirdly, the vast majority of teenagers are not emotionally equipped to handle the responsibility of parenthood. Fourth, a teenaged girl who ends up that way often cripples her chances of getting a decent education and learning a skill, and thus gaining meaningful employment in later life, thereby condemning herself to a lifetime of either having extremely menial, lowpaying, unskilled work to support herself and her baby, or welfare dependency, because it’s often the only way to go. because most of these girls don’t finish school, due to lack of interest, because, for the most part, girls who end up that way tend to come from backgrounds where an interest in any kind of education fails to thrive.

    If I sound prejudiced against teenaged parents, it’s because I believe that the vast majority of teens are not good parents; they’re not emotionally, psychologically, or mentally prepared for parenthood, and there’s often much domestic violence and child abuse in such situations.

  • independentminded

    For starters, to be honest, while we’re on the subject of movies and sexism, my alltime favorite film is….believe it or not…the great golden oldie-but-goody movie/musical classic…(DRUMROLL…)...West Side Story! I’ve had brief discussions with some of my old classmates, one of who is presently raising a girl that’s close to being in her teens, if she isn’t already. This particular old classmate of mine told me that she felt that West Side Story is somewhat sexist, partly because the Jets wouldn’t accept Anybodys as an equal and a gang member, and because of the way the girlfriends of both gangs (i. e. the Jets and Sharks) were portrayed. I disagreed with my old classmate, stating that I didn’t think that the film West Side Story was sexist, really, because there were some very strong, independent-willed women in the movie also.


    Anita, the girlfriend of Shark gangleader Bermardo, for instance, constantly disagreed with Bernardo on just about everything, and, despite her obvious disapproval of Maria’s relationship with Tony, who was an ex-Jet gang member, finally came to terms with Maria & Tony’s relationship and ultimately went (although rather reluctantly) to the Candy Store where Tony was hiding out, to warn him that Chino, who was also a Shark gang member, was gunning for him to avenge Bernardo’s death. Unfortunately, when Anita encounters the Jets in the Candy Store and appeals to them to let her give Tony the message that Chino’s gunning for him, in order to protect Tony, things turn out disastrous. The Jets refuse to listen to her, insult her and rough her up, until Doc comes in and orders the Jets to stop.  Justifiably angry, Anita retaliates by giving the Jets a whole different message:  that Chino has found out about Tony and Maria’s romance and shot her dead.  


    Maria, although less of a firebrand than Anita, is also strong-willed, determined to stick by Tony at all costs, despite  the taboos emanating from both sides, and even after Tony stabbed her brother, Bernardo, to death, to avenge his old buddy, Riff’s death, during the rumble that had just occurred. So, folks, that’s how I feel about West Side Story.  In a way, WSS got a head start on its time. Anybodys ultimately does win the respect and acceptance by the Jets as a fellow peer and an equal in the endl So, having said all of the above,  no, I don’t believe that West Side Story is sexist, which is what I told my old classmate.

  • independentminded

    At the risk of seeming to take too high a moral ground for the comfort of many posters here, I just don’t think that teenaged sex, pregnancy and their consequences are something that should be satired.  Yet, at the same time, as a free-speech advocate, I’m not about to go on a campaign to stop people who make movies such as Juno from creating them, nor do I advocate stopping people from seeing such  movies, since they’ve got just as much right to make choices as to the kinds of films they see as I or anybody else does.  However,  I opted not to see it, for my own personal reasons that I wrote about in a post of mine prior to officially joining this forum,  so I won’t go into that again.  

  • invalid-0

    Yesterday, watched his fellow film 500 Days of Summer, and you know it is very good.

  • independentminded

    but I wasn’t sure.  Thanks for the heads up, Movie Now.

  • independentminded

    Btw, Movie Now;  I was just looking in your list of movies, which is rather long, and have discovered that you and I like many of the same films.  Am I right?  

  • invalid-0

    Still haven’t seen this film yet but have heard nothing but good things.

    Will be interesting to see it now knowing this ….

  • invalid-0

    I have been excited to see it, i guess we will see:)

  • isabeli

    500 Days of Summer and Breakfast at Tiffany’s I think are one of the good movies produced this year. But some actors and actress didn’t justify their role in the movies. So sad! Anyway, you can also check out the the latest movie that will be launched this September-The Extract! The Extract reviews not being very good might not matter that much – the film’s director, Mike Judge has never had much of a great following with establishment types. His three films are more of cult classics – the Beavis and Butthead movie, Office Space, and Idiocracy all got lousy reviews upon release and didn’t make huge box office earnings, but rather gained followings through rentals and word of mouth. Extract, starring Jason Bateman, had a limited opening this weekend. If the Extract reviews bear on the box office earnings and grosses over all, let’s hope they made it with low cost loans.