This is not modern, Mary.
— Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening)
Despite its title, The Women is not an update of George Cukor’s diva smackdown of the same name. That 1939 film was based on Clare Boothe Luce’s stage play and has long held cult status among aficionados of camp. Diane English’s movie is something else.
Some of the new film’s changes speak to the changing times. (It would have been hard to imagine a black lesbian like Jada Pinkett Smith’s Alex, for instance, back in that big screen day.) Other changes are structural. As in the original, the focus is solely on women: husbands and corporate bosses are filtered entirely through phones, and the stars are set in spaces where men don’t go. Sometimes these spaces make sense; the salon at Saks in the middle of the day might not have any men (though surely a number would be laboring there), and the dressing suites of a high-end lingerie boutique would most definitely be devoid of them. Other times, these single-sex realms poke fun at the foibles and fancies of upper crust Manhattanites, as when Mary (Meg Ryan) meets her mother (Candace Bergen) for lunch at what is supposed to recall the restaurant at the Four Seasons. Here the two are surrounded by the ladies-who-lunch set, all of whom are fine-tuned to everyone else in the room, noting who’s having lunch with whom, who’s wearing what, and who appears to have had recent cosmetic work. Most of the time, however, the lack of men, even in the background, is noticeable mostly for the absurd stretches English has to go to keep the screen male-free.
Coming after Sex and the City, The Women is plainly appealing to a particular demographic. English has said repeatedly during her 10-year journey to realize the project, that she wanted to focus on women’s friendships rather than on bitchery and back-stabbing. The Women, in other words, is not just a women’s film, but a feminist film. The question remains, however, what kind of feminism?
It’s certainly not old-school, second-wave feminism. That would be too unruly, the women too demanding of justice and equality. A few moments do take up historical feminist concerns, as when Alex’s supermodel girlfriend Natasha (Natasha Alam) rails against being called a “supermodel” because it objectifies her. We see her a bit later, trying to blend in to the background of a party, clutching a glass of champagne and furtively chomping off bits of paper cocktail napkins. You see, the fashion industry does horrible things to women and their self-esteem.
But such instances of critical consciousness are quickly left behind. Instead, the film focuses on those relationships English had in mind. Mary accepts her mother’s counsel upon learning that her husband is having an affair with a perfume counter sales clerk (Eva Mendes). Though Mary wants to confront him, mom tells her not to let him know she knows, and instead take a vacation where she’ll be out of touch. The more time he spends with his mistress, mom sagely opines, the more he will come to re-appreciate his wife.
Mary combines this door-mat approach with other, less depressing activities, like follow her own set-aside career dreams (in a glaring inconsistency, the fashion industry so overtly critiqued earlier becomes the vehicle of Mary’s transformation). When at last she achieves a rapprochement with her spouse, the film suggests that Mary’s strength lies in her quiet reserve and fidelity. Seems less feminist than Victorian to me.
In this respect, The Women represents the kind of popular post-feminist feminism all too common in mainstream media over the past decade, and on spectacular display this month in the ascendancy of Sarah Palin. Feminist scholars like Linda Hirshman have pilloried such “choice feminism,” which celebrates any and all choices made by women as “feminist,” even when those choices lead to very traditional, heteronormative, and conservative positioning for women.
In The Women, post-feminist feminism is apotheosized in Edie (Debra Messing), the stay-at-home mommy with a seemingly ever expanding brood. When she announces to her girlfriends that she is “eating for two” again, and they offer a collective gasp of exasperation, Edie defends herself, claiming, “I want to keep going until I have a boy.” Apparently her four daughters aren’t fulfilling or don’t complete her duties as a mother.
And so it turns out that The Women is all about men after all. By the film’s end, the resolutely single and careerist Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening) has gone all gooshy for her new romance, and Mary is on track to reunite with her husband. Even the lesbian Alex joins in the celebration at the birth of Edie’s long-awaited son. Whether in the form of a baby boy or a loving partner, The Women insists that women only find true happiness in men.