‘Anomalisa’ and the (Fe)Male Gaze

Anomalisa

This guest post written by Sarah Halle Corey previously appeared at REELYDOPE and is cross-posted with permission.


I watched Anomalisa in a room filled with middle-aged men. It was not a movie meant for me, and I knew that going in.

Charlie Kaufman, the writer and co-director of the film, is the king of emotionally damaged men in indie film, from lovesick Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to self-loathing (and semi-autobiographical) Charlie in Adaptation. He creates brooding, self-centered white men who struggle to find meaning in their existences. Michael, the main character of Anomalisa, is no different. He’s a self-help author who doesn’t know how to help himself. Everyone in his world looks and sounds exactly the same, and so he doesn’t know how to connect to other people or to any sense of meaning in his life. He’s trapped by his own weaknesses, especially his own depression and disillusionment. And he’s a middle-aged white man.

The middle-aged men in my movie theater audience ate it all up.

But the thing is, I did too… at least a little. If I didn’t fully eat it up, I took some pretty hefty bites. I, a 22-year-old woman with a big, bubbly smile relate to Anomalisa. What does that say about me? What does it say about the movie?

Roger Ebert famously said, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson pretty brilliantly demonstrate Ebert’s idea by fully immersing the audience in Michael’s world. We see the same identically blank faces as Michael, and we hear the same single one-tone voice. The drab colors and claustrophobic hotel setting contribute to Michael’s and the audience’s sense that the world is a mind-numbing place. Oh, and did I mention the whole thing is made with stop-motion animation? So each and every movement on screen is slightly stilted, slightly inhuman. The use of stop-motion to create a sense of detachment is the cherry on top of a disillusionment sundae.

The audience is so expertly placed in Michael’s perspective, that we can’t help but feel the fear and tedium and longing that he does. As we watch the movie, we tap into something in ourselves; our own personal feelings rise up and help us to relate to the story being told. Beneath the surface of my bubbly smile, there is some fear and some longing, and maybe even a little tedium every now and then. Kaufman helps us to dig into what might be happening beyond the surface of reality. He draws on an emotional darkness that is deeply human – something that every person can relate to in some way, big or small, regardless of gender or age.

Which is why it’s frustrating to see in Anomalisa­ – like in so many movies before it – the sense of hope come in the form of a woman, an object of romance for a man. Michael, and thus the audience, feel disillusioned until Lisa enters the story. With a detailed face and a unique voice crackling with warmth, Lisa offers a beacon of connection and possible peace of mind. She is in the movie to serve only one purpose: to be Michael’s vision of salvation who he hopes will save him.

We’ve seen it countless times before with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: the cinematic trope of quirky women who are endlessly available to better the lives of male leads. Lisa doesn’t exactly fit the type; while the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stands out as eccentric, Lisa is completely and utterly ordinary. And, (spoiler alert) Michael’s hopes for salvation through her don’t come to fruition. Nevertheless, even as the antithetical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Lisa’s only role in the film is to be a projection of Michael’s emotions and issues.

As I sat watching Anomalisa, which had expertly wrapped me up in Michael’s world, I couldn’t help thinking where his fixation on Lisa left me as an audience member. I was there for the ride, there to be swept up into my main character’s point of view. And yet, his point of view is the male gaze, of which I, as a young woman, would theoretically be the object. So then what is my place in watching Anomalisa?

To put it bluntly, I’m sick of movies in which sad men think they can be saved by their idea of a woman. Existential dread and emotional depth belong to us all, not just middle-aged men. Perhaps the male gaze in film is something that women can claim for ourselves, reminding the world that these feelings are universal ones. When we’re not fighting the patriarchy, women also get sad over the meaning of life. Perhaps instead of defaulting to male protagonists, we can see more complex women who are saved by their Manic Pixie Dream Guys, or saved by something else entirely.

It’s true that movies are empathy machines, making the audience feel what the characters feel, and Kaufman excels at that. But, it would be even better if we could get to empathize with a broader range of characters. I liked Anomalisa, but I would have loved a movie with Lisa as the subject, not the object.


Sarah Halle Corey is a writer, filmmaker, and digital content creator who produces work about pop culture, feminism, feelings, and everything in between. You can find her work at sarahhallecorey.com. Sarah is usually drinking way too much coffee and/or tweeting @SarahHalleCorey.

5 Comments

  • Kat
    Posted March 26, 2016 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    This essay resonates with my feelings about the movie so well. When the movie ended, my friend–also a young woman of color–and I turned to each other and said, “another movie about a sad old white guy!” Don’t get me wrong–a big part of the reason why I eat up cinema from all over the world and from the past and present is precisely to see all kinds of stories about all kinds of people. But heck, as Anomalisa goes on, I often want to slap Michael in the face and tell him to cheer up and accept the love around him. The movie has a great concept yet it felt too drawn out for a feature-length movie. The Lisa/Anomalisa character is what made the movie for me. But as this essay points out so well, she’s essentially poor old Michael’s temporary and self-concocted medicine.

    • casecandy
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      It could have been more inclusive. As it stands the film is about Michael’s awakening from alienation, via Lisa. But what if could have been a mutual awakening from alienation? And your comment about wanting to slap Michael in the face is too real… I’m like, dude, you’re rich and you’re cheating on your wife.Come on. You have kids!

  • Ed
    Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    I’ve read a few reviews that point out that the Japanese woman doll from the sex toy shop is Lisa–they both have facial scars and semen comes out of the toy at the end of the movie which is probably the semen Michael put in Lisa. (this Japanese doll is also the only representation of any person of color in the film). Lisa’s anti-manic pixie dream girl characterization (or the way she’s gazed upon by Michael) might play into the gendered and sexualized racialization of Asian women–at least the submissive, willing Asian woman trope. And then it’s also pretty shitty that Lisa becomes a transferable object to Michael at the end. ugh.

    I couldn’t even enjoy this film by trying to looks past its whiteness and male gaze. I agree that seeing the inner struggle of people that aren’t rich white men would be better but I don’t think it should involve reclaiming the white gaze because the inner struggles of people who aren’t rich white men are linked to systematic oppression that largely don’t apply to the white male gaze. I also think the white male gaze is inherently problematic (as you’ve said with people seen by this gaze, especially women, becoming objects) so I don’t see it as worth reclaiming. Other gazes and ways of looking at the world and self are possible through a diversity of protagonists. Thank you for this piece. I had to dig to find reviews like this.

  • casecandy
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought, “Which is why it’s frustrating to see in Anomalisa­ – like in so many movies before it – the sense of hope come in the form of a woman, an object of romance for a man.” Honestly, considering the incredible talent of the writer/director, it felt myopic and almost literally masturbatory. Which isn’t to say that it was a bad movie! The same way Garden State isn’t a bad movie. It’s just unnecessarily limited.

  • BaboonPower
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure, thought, that the same movie, but featuring a middle-aged woman fucking a younger man in an hotel room would have been touted as being empowering and brave, right?