|Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down"|
On September 28, 2012, Won't Back Down will hit the theaters. This is a movie starring two well-known, respected actresses, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. It has two female characters. One of them is a woman of color. They are two characters who work together in the pursuit of a common goal. They have lives that do not revolve around men. Their eventual triumph is a triumph of female collaboration.
This movie sounds like a feminist's dream come true. It will probably pass the Bechdel test with flying colors and show a realistic portrayal of two women who become close as they fight a common enemy. And this common enemy is one of the greediest, most evil foes in American history: the teachers' union.
I really shouldn't be surprised. We live in the age of Corporations Are People, so of course a film financed by a conservative activist is going to portray a teachers' union as the villain. After all, Waiting for Superman didn't succeed enough in its propaganda to demonize unions and public schools, so the producers have no choice but to try their hand at fiction instead.
This is not exaggeration. An February article from The New York Times, "In Reality and Film, a Battle for Schools," states the following:
"For Walden, the film is a second shot at an education-reform movie. With Mr. Gates and the progressive-minded Participant Media, Walden was among the financial backers of the documentary 'Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ”That film, released in 2010, advocated, as potential solutions to an education crisis, charter schools, teacher testing and an end to tenure. But it took in only about $6.4 million at the box office and received no Oscar nominations after union officials and others strongly attacked it.'We realized the inherent limitations of the documentary format,' said Michael Bostick, chief executive of Walden. Now, he said, the idea is to reach a larger audience through the power of actors playing complicated characters who struggle with issues that happen to be, in his phrase, 'ripped from the headlines.'"
"Ripped from the headlines." That's an accurate description, as the story of the film is ripped from several different headlines about parent trigger laws (laws that allow parents to overturn public schools if they get enough signatures on a petition - 51%). "Inspired by a true story" also leads the audience to believe that this is a fictionalized version of a successful implementation of the parent trigger law - except that's not the case. The parent trigger law has never been successfully been implemented, and moreover, Won't Back Down takes place in Pennsylvania - a city that doesn't have such a law in the first place.
But that's not the only reason why Won't Back Down appears to be problematic. Take a look at the trailer:
It's only two and a half minutes long but I can't keep count of all the cliches in such a short amount of time. I do think it's interesting that the trailer only shows us two teachers - Maggie Gyllenhaal's daughter's Bad Teacher and Viola Davis's Good Teacher - and we're immediately led to believe that Davis's character is the exceptional, rare Good one while the cartoonish Bad Teacher is indicative of most of the people at that school.
Of course, I haven't yet seen the film myself. Other former teachers have, though, and they point out the way the film portrays teachers and unions as villains. Sabrina Stevens, in "Why 'Won't Back Down Just Doesn't Stack Up'," writes:
"I personally remember lots of overstuffed rolling tote bags (an especially popular option among teachers who needed to bring work home after school ended) and reusable coffee mugs (popular among us newbies who often worked such long hours we barely saw daylight during the fall and winter months) in the school I worked in. Likewise, the school day itself was often a whirr, with teachers bouncing around among 25, 30 or more students at a time during lessons; moving in and out of meetings, planning and professional development sessions; and making calls and handling other daily logistics during “free” periods.
Yet in the movie, it is repeatedly asserted that the union contract prevents exactly this kind of work from taking place. (I suppose all those graded papers, lesson plans, letters of recommendation and after-school activities just happen by magic?) In this school, the contract and the union that backs it are blamed for teachers not helping kids and refusing to work after school. And except for the two teachers closest to the desperate mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, these teachers don’t appear to do all that much during the school day, either. The dour, bitter teachers on display during the first two-thirds of this movie looked very little like the committed, passionate teachers I know-- though I suppose it’s easy for a screenwriter to misread teachers’ bouts of fatigue or frustration as bitterness if they don’t understand where that frustration comes from. Managing 30 or so people at once requires a constant stream of attention and thousands of split-second decisions every day. Add to that inadequate resources and escalating demands, and formerly bright smiles will indeed begin to dim."
The film seems to have an overwhelming anti-union message. So what does that have to do with feminism?
Well, frankly, I'm really annoyed that there's a movie with two women in the lead roles - three, if you include Holly Hunter's antagonistic eeeevil union leader - and I can't go see it because of the teacher-bashing.
I like to see movies with women in the lead roles. I especially like to see movies that have two women in the lead roles. I want to financially support movies that give women storylines that don't revolve entirely around men. And now there seems to be such a film, that also happens to be dedicated to kicking a group that's already down.
I feel like Hollywood bought me a kitty cat, made me fall in love with that kitty cat, and then crept into my room at night and punched me in the face.
Thanks, Hollywood. Thanks a lot.