When It Seems Like the Movie You’re Watching Might Hate You

Written by Katherine Murray.

Quick – you’re all settled down in front of the TV with Cheetos and soda when you start to have an uncomfortable feeling. The characters are being really hateful, and you can’t quite tell if the writer supports them. Do you: a) keep watching the movie to see how this ends; b) stop watching the movie and do something else; or c) read spoilers for the ending, to find out if you’re wasting your time? If you answered a, b, or c to that question, congratulations! You win. There’s no single Right Way to respond when it seems like a movie might hate you.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Joey Lauren Adams stars as Alyssa in Chasing Amy Chasing Amy[/caption]

I watched Chasing Amy for the first time last weekend, and it was a pretty intense experience. I can totally see why this film was such a boost to Kevin Smith’s career – it’s a great movie with a strong voice and an unusually forthright message about how women are actually people. What’s weird is that watching it still felt like walking through a minefield, and not in an exciting way. In a way where I was kind of scared and uncomfortable, thinking I might get blown up.

Check it out.

Chasing Amy is about a real-life experience Kevin Smith had, where he judged his girlfriend for her sexual history and then realized that he was acting like a jerk. The movie takes the situation further and fictionalizes it, giving us a story about a comic book writer named Holden who falls in love with a lesbian, Alyssa, convinces her to start dating him anyway, flips out when he hears that she’s had sex with other dudes in the past, and then alienates her completely and ends up alone. His best friend, Banky, stands on the sidelines making misogynist, homophobic jokes, before it’s revealed that the real root of his anger is his unacknowledged homosexual attraction to Holden.

The movie essentially pulls a bait and switch. The first half of the story looks like it’s going to be about a straight guy who only hangs out with a lesbian because he wants to sleep with her, and then turns her straight with his dick, but then the second half of the story is about that guy learning that he’s acting like an asshole. That, instead of treating Alyssa like a person with the right to her own sexual history and choices, he’s labouring under the belief that she’s obliged to be the Perfect Woman as created by his imagination. She calls him out on it in a pretty straightforward way – first when he assumes that his being attracted to her should mean that she’s attracted to him, and later when he tries to shame her for a three-way she had back in high school – and I can’t quite express how relieved I was when that happened.

It’s a sad commentary on the culture we live in that, as much as I like and respect Kevin Smith as a writer, I honestly wasn’t sure at first if I was supposed to think Holden was cool. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to think that what he was doing was OK, or that Banky was funny when he told jokes about man-hating dykes – I wasn’t sure if this was going to end with Holden and Alyssa getting married and living happily ever after. And I actually stopped the movie halfway through and looked on Wikipedia to see how it ended, because I didn’t think I could stand to watch it if it was really about Holden and the Bankster being awesome bros together.

It surprised me to have such a strong reaction – I mean, I will seriously sit through almost anything, no matter how annoying it is; I love sitting that much – but it also put me in mind of something Kendra James said about watching Django Unchained“I advise seeing it in the company of people you trust.”

What makes Chasing Amy an important movie is that it taps into something that’s real in our culture – it puts its metaphorical finger right on a raw, exposed nerve. The things that these guys are saying, the things that they’re doing – these are things that some guys really do and say, without recognizing that there’s anything all that wrong with it. In fact, some guys have found it appropriate to say these things to me, for real, in my life. The fear that the movie might not have my back on that was not an abstract, intellectual concern. It was a visceral reaction. I didn’t want to let my guard down just to feel betrayed.

It isn’t just me, either.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="501"]Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman star in Dollhouse Dollhouse[/caption]

Back when Dollhouse premiered in 2009, a lot of women I knew (and knew of, through the internet) swore off watching it. If you don’t remember the show, that’s OK – I’m pretty sure only five people actually saw it. It was made by Joss Whedon and the story was about a bunch of people (mostly women) who sell their bodies to a futuristic whorehouse where scientists have the technology to wipe someone’s mind and download a new personality into her brain. Clients could request exactly what they wanted, and the Dollhouse would give it to them by programming a human being to act like a fantasy.

Because it was an action-adventure show (sort of), the client of the week usually wanted something beyond whoring – they might need a spy, or a thief, or an expert psychologist or something to go on a mission – but it was clear that sex work was the company’s bread and butter.

As the story ultimately unfolds, it becomes clear that the Dollhouse is fundamentally evil – the first step toward the total collapse of civilization, heralded by the disregard for human life that displays itself in treating people as disposable, programmable shells. The inhabitants of the Dollhouse fight to escape and regain their identities, and find themselves at ground zero of a massive civil war. The dark desire to make women into whatever one wants or needs them to be – here expressed a little more literally than in Chasing Amy – is presented as a form of misguided entitlement, feeding into other situations where the powerful take what they want at somebody else’s expense.

Unfortunately, during the first few episodes of the series, it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to be bothered by what’s going on in the Dollhouse, or to casually accept it as a sexy, cool recipe for adventure. Just like with Chasing Amy, the attitudes expressed in the first half are attitudes expressed in real life, usually by people who don’t see any problem with what they believe – and watching the characters accept these ideas as normal raised the possibility that maybe the writers were just blind to it. The power and relevance of both of these stories comes from the fact that objectifying women is a popular pastime in real life, and not everyone sees the problem with that – the discomfort and uncertainty of these stories comes from the fact that objectifying women is a popular pastime in real life, and not everyone sees the problem with that. It’s hard to know, at first, whose side the story is on.

It doesn’t help that both of these stories also seem to be aimed at dudes. They’re both structured in such a way that the skeeviness of these attitudes toward women is something that’s “revealed” rather than taken as given. I have a hard time imagining a female audience that would begin from the position that all of this stuff is okay and need to hear an explanation of why it’s not. It’s a lot of dudes telling other dudes that women are people, and that’s encouraging, but it also reminds you that you’re not considered a person right from the start.

So, what do you do when you feel uneasy, and fear that the movie might hate you?

I think it just depends on how much you trust the people telling the story, and how much you’re willing to risk. I don’t think anyone is obligated to sit still and be insulted for two hours, so, if you feel like that’s what might be happening, you’re well within your rights to bail. I also don’t think you’re obligated to avoid watching something just because it’s problematic, so, if you want to stick it out and see the whole thing, that’s a totally awesome choice, too.

Either way, I think Kendra James has it right; when the topic is your relative equality, you need the company of people you trust–in the audience, behind the camera, on a Facebook chat after the show. People who think you’re a person right from frame one.

Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies and TV on her blog.