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Woman on Top

Director: Fina Torres
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio, Harold Perrineau, Jr., Mark Feuerstein

(Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2000)

Fairy Tales Do Still Exist

Woman on Top is first and foremost a fairy tale. And, holding true to this traditional form, it starts, “Once upon a time.” So, once upon a time a beautiful, Brazilian girl named Isabella (Penelope Cruz) is born with extreme motion sickness; this motion sickness forces her into a stationary life, keeping company with the family cook and finding her own culinary magic.


This magic eventually leads her to her true love, Toninho (Murilo Benicio). Once married, she finds herself split between the rather oppressive stereotype of a woman in the kitchen and her love for her husband. But when he cheats on Isabella, Toninho makes the decision for her. She abandons him and their restaurant and flies off to San Francisco to live with her cross-dressing childhood friend, Monica (Harold Perrineau, Jr). Once there, she meets Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), a young television producer, as a result of his encounter with one of her delicious creations. Cliff offers Isabella her own television cooking show and she, as we are constantly reminded, is so captivating that her show is an immediate success. Eventually, penitent Toninho arrives in San Francisco, where he tries to win Isabella back through the use of his musical talents. But the only thing he woos are the television producers; he is hired as the musical accompaniment to Isabella’s cooking, and the show becomes even more popular.


Fairy tales tend to take place in far off magical kingdoms where the beauty of the countryside and the people is unparalleled. Here, rich colors and soft lights bring a magical aura to earthly but exotic Brazil and independent San Francisco. The browns, reds, blues, and creams are soft and inviting; Isabella wears deep red dresses that float in the wind. We are encouraged to take in Isabella and Toninho’s beauty through repeated close-ups.


The focus on cooking also reinforces the film’s fairy tale structure. Fairy tales often contain fantastic elements as a means to present a social or cultural lesson. Here, food concoctions — and more specifically, the transformative and healing effects of Isabella’s culinary creations — reinforce lessons beyond the obvious (for instance, “Cooking is an art”). At first, the movie’s concentration on cooking is overt and superficial: Isabella is stuck in the kitchen. But this stereotype of a woman in the kitchen extends to other issues, for instance, it resonates with the other problems in Isabella and Toninho’s marriage, which stem mainly from their blind adherence to traditional gender roles. Toninho’s need to be in control of the relationship represents the masculine side of stereotypical gender roles; specifically, he needs to drive the car, he needs to lead when dancing, and, most importantly, he needs to be on top when making love, which, due to Isabella’s severe motion sickness, does not happen as often as he would like. The magic that Isabella creates when she cooks overcomes barriers created by these conventional roles for men and women. Most significantly, cooking eventually becomes the symbol of Isabella and Toninho’s rejection of these roles, so that they may make their marriage a stronger one.


All of these elements combine to create a contemporary fairy tale where the purpose is not only to invoke a nostalgia for the warmth and simplicity of childhood or perhaps the soothing powers of food, but also to address, however whimsically, sex and gender politics. Fairy tales are important because they express cultural moments. Woman on Top, as a modern day fairy tale, highlights today’s confusion over gender roles. The lessons Isabella and Toninho learn about expected behaviors are central the film’s eventual moral. As with any fairy tale, this moral is slightly clouded by its sweet ingredients, making it easier to digest than if it were presented through stark reality. These lessons are somewhat complicated, however, because they come with the generic and stereotypical images of beauty, love, and gender roles.


While the movie updates these roles, its attitude toward “beauty” and “love” is another story. Adhering to Hollywood’s traditional images of beauty, Isabella is, quite simply, the Western paradigm of beauty — thin and leggy with long, flowing hair and ample breasts. The two things men find most attractive about her are her cooking and her body, especially her breasts (the television camera’s focus underlines this point). Toninho too, is ideally attractive: thin but muscular, with a soft, exotic face topped off by two days worth of stubble. And the love shared between these two beautiful people spans time and overcomes all cultural barriers. It is this concept — that indestructible love exists — that I find most troublesome, because as children listening to fairy tales, this is what most of us heard and what some of us have come to expect. While it’s a nice ideal to imagine, it is a rather dangerous one to try live by.


Woman on Top may make you smile and want to believe in fairy tale love once again. True, it may be impossible to avoid romantic cliches when the movie is trying to make its audience feel warm inside and has to build on established cultural notions to do so. And so, I suppose, this is the lesson: it is up to viewers to decide what they care more about — avoiding movies that stick to those notions or enjoy it, like a quick gulp of a slightly too warm cup of hot chocolate.

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