The Urge to Scribble

April 20, 2008

L’art pour l’art

A few months ago there was a mini-debate in the papers about whether or not Juno was an anti-abortion film. Along with considering whether or not this was the case it got me thinking about what we expect from our entertainment. As a feminist, or indeed, whatever identity I chose, should I worry about whether the entertainment I watch reflects my political viewpoints? Might I not reject good art for political purposes? Or am I betraying myself not to question the assumptions and the viewpoints of the work that crosses my path.

In the case of Juno I found the arguments around it interesting. Juno is a film about a 16 year-old who gets pregnant. She decides to have the baby and give it away for adoption. For such a serious subject it is a surprisingly funny film. When the story begins Juno assumes she is going to have an abortion but changes her mind while in the clinic waiting room. In presenting abortion as not only the natural choice but one that is not condemned the film can not be seen to be anti-abortion. Yes, Juno rejects having an abortion for herself but the abortion option is not condemned. Juno is taking the ‘pro-choice’ movement at their word. The choice is available and that is never questioned or presented in a negative light. There is also the pro-life protester outside the clinic –  one of the most ridiculous characters in a film of ridiculous characters. A pro-life movie would hardly choose her as the only advocate of their cause. Juno is a film that sees the ridiculous in everything. It is also a film about teenage pregnancy – the only way it could have been more pro-choice would have been for Juno to have the abortion at the beginning and then where would the plot of the film have been?

So Juno could be seen to demonstrate the limits of art and entertainment as an expression of political viewpoints. Plot, characters and setting can all mitigate against us seeing the story that we might like to see, that politically we want to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is bad or that those involved have betrayed any political principles, it means the film makers, writers or performers were more interested in their art than our ideas. I might not always agree with that approach but I can understand it.

In the past I have been made very angry or very uncomfortable by films. It is the ones that are lazy about political issues or that seem to promise you something more than just a piece of fluff that have left me with that feeling. Knocked Up left me feeling very uncomfortable. Unlike Juno, here was a film about accidental pregnancy that was unwilling to engage with abortion at all. The character, of course, had to reject abortion for the plot to progress, but this was done with little skill. Indeed, the rest of the plot had little skill. It was never made clear why this smart, intelligent woman would stick around with a lazy pothead. She was shown falling for his easy charm once they spent some time together but why did she choose to spend anytime with him in the first place? And why did she seem convinced that she needed to be in a couple for her child? Why did she need a man to look after her, especially one so unable to take of himself? Knocked Up was not meant as a political film. But it was a lazy film. The men who wrote it have not considered how uncomfortable and insulting it could be from a woman’s point of view. Even the star, Katherine Heigl, has called it “sexist”. The men are childish and loveable, the women are demanding and unreasonable. Its social assumptions are ultimately very different from those of Juno where the character is allowed to cut her own path. Although it was not intended to be addressing any issues, by not intelligently engaging with its own characters it can never be anything more than very superficial fluff.

However, my ire for Knocked Up was nothing compared with my reaction to Mona Lisa Smile a few years ago. Here was a film which was presented as the feminist Dead Poet’s Society but instead turned out to be something of a damp squid.  The wiki entry on the film paints the feminist picture for it very well but what I remember is the general rejection by most of the girls of their teacher’s ideas and the opportunities that she was opening up to them. And the very strong sense from the film that the teacher was more wrong than right in the way she pushed her opinions. My disappointment in the film was based in the fact that it had tried to claim the ground of a girl’s movie promoting women and inspiring women. If this was as far as they thought women could get then I was not very impressed. If they had not tried to stake the feminist territory for themselves I probably would not have reacted as badly as I did.

My friends criticised me for wanting Mona Lisa Smile to be a polemic for feminism. They argued that it was more honest to have a variety of reactions to new ideas, to have some girls rejecting and some embracing the main character’s teaching. My complaint was with the number of girls who rejected what she said. If it was really so inspirational, why did so many who could have been liberated by what she said turn away from it? Even if it was only an attempt to show balance on the part of the film-makers it certainly undermined any positive message that I could have taken from the film.

When criticising art and entertainment from a political viewpoint one has to be careful. We can’t expect art to stick to our party line, whatever that may be. But we can hold it to its promises, which Mona Lisa Smile could be said to have let down. We can equally expect it to engage intelligently with the world around it. If it does not then we can as well criticise it for the poverty of its ambition as the failure of its morals. It must be disheartening for people who have worked hard for months and years on pieces of work to have them hijacked by commentators or activists for this cause or that. But at least it shows we recognise the importance of their work. It cannot exist in a bubble, it has to feed back into the world that inspired it. In taking political or personal issue with a piece of work we show that we recognise art’s importance to shape the way we think and feel about the world around us. At its furthest extent, we could argue that when someone is having their work torn to shreds or twisted beyond recognition, they should just be happy that we think it is worth doing. If we only engaged with our entertainment on a superficial level we would betray both the effort that has gone into its creation and our own intelligence as thinking, feeling human beings. Art is not just for art’s sake, it is for all our sakes.

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2 Comments »

  1. Regarding ‘Juno’, I entirely agree that the way some journalists, who were seemingly so keen to start off their opinion piece a with pop-culture reference that they forgot to actually watch the film, decided to brand ‘Juno’ as anti-abortion was plainly ridiculous. However, I must pick up the suggestion that “the only way it could have been more pro-choice would have been for Juno to have the abortion at the beginning”. In what way is that *more* pro-choice, it seems to give credence to the misconception that unless something actively promotes abortion then it’s in some way anti-abortion. In fact, for exactly the reasons you outlined, ‘Juno’ was pro-choice in the truest sense. The character freely made the choice that she believed best, whether or not you agree with that decision.

    On the other hand, ‘Knocked Up’ was undoubtedly sexist in its construct, it was essentially a ‘stoner film’ and, while being fairly novel in this regard by presenting the story from both male and female perspectives, it fulfilled the genre conventions. ‘Knocked Up’ was also left open to the charge of being anti-abortion due to its lack of consideration of the alternatives and the perpetuation of traditional family values. Whether you see the film as a reflection of society’s values, as a potential influence on its audience’s attitudes or just a harmless piece of fluff, well, I’d be starting my own blog entry if I began entering into that contentious debate.

    Comment by Ed — April 21, 2008 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  2. Interesting question. I haven’t seen Juno or Knocked Up so won’t comment on those. As regards Mona Lisa Smile, I think I disagree with your comment about it not portraying feminism in a good light.* However, I think the main reason it doesn’t work is fundamentally a Bad Film. It doesn’t tell the story well enough to be able to handle the nuances of teh girls’ reactions and it relies on shorthand to convey character, which just gets it into trouble. I also think it is bearing a rather unfair load (for which it certainly is not strong enough) in that there are very few films with a feminist storyline so by default it becomes invested with a kind of social/moral responsibility.

    On the broader point about film and politics, I think it is perfectly possible to like and admire films with which you violently disagree. But I think the key is that they should at least know what they are trying to say (and that doesn’t mean that they need to be big-P-political or have a one-sided ‘message’). I think that what you are reacting against in many cases is lazy storytelling that relies on easy stereotypes in lieu of fully developed characters. So, no, I don’t think that filmmakers have a political duty, but I do think they have an artistic one. And I think that you are right to be angry when they do not fulfil it.

    *It is celebratory when the Kirsten Dunst character dumps her cheating husband and moves in with a female friend in Greenwich Village. And I think it is meant to be sad that the other character gives up her place at law school, but maybe that’s just me. I certainly had the impression she would probably find herself in the same position in a couple of year’s time, just that she had to find out for herself

    Comment by Emily — May 30, 2008 @ 4:46 pm | Reply


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